Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan D Ellis’

Review – Damn Yankees – Theatrica Limited at Landor Theater

October 11, 2014

Growing up in the US, when I heard the title of this show I always assumed it was some kind of comedy about Northerners moving to the South. So typical of me, a non-sports-lover, to completely miss the thought that this might be a references to the New York Yankees baseball team! If you’re also completely in the dark, I’ll fill you in on the plot (in part to tempt you to make the time and travel investment): Damn Yankees is a 1955 Broadway musical – this is the golden age, people, when the very best stuff was being written – about a dumpy, middle-aged real estate agent who, in a moment of frustration, shouts, “I’d give my soul to see my team win the pennant!” In best style, this summons the devil (or some version thereof – he’s called Mr Applegate), who promptly transforms flabby Joe Boyd into super athlete Joe Hardy, a 20 ish young man with a winning smile and an even more winning hitting arm. He promises to have Joe be the man who takes his team to the top – with “the standard payment” (it’s not discussed in much detail). The rest of the show involves Joe trying to win over the team, its manager, and the nosy reporter Gloria while Mr Applegate, with a little help from she-demon Lola, tries to get Joe to give up on his escape clause. Comedy, baseball, hummable songs and unexpected mambo dancing ensue.

If you’re a regular reader, you must be going, “Webcowgirl! What’s up with ruining the ‘go in looking for surprises’ approach?” Although my normal approach to shows is to keep myself in the dark, this just isn’t true for musicals (or Shakespeare). This is a classic, a standard, and while there’s occasionally a show I won’t know, I have to be honest about the fact that I go in with expectations. I am excited to see how people will make the old shows fresh again. And I enjoy sitting in a room full of people singing their hearts out beautifully. It’s my guilty pleasure, only I don’t feel guilty about it.

Guilt isn’t the kind of feeling that would come to mind with Damn Yankees anyway, as it’s really just a giant ball of positivity with little drizzles of sauciness to make it fun. The songs combine soaring vocals with solid feeling and character development, getting you behind the perennial losers that make up The Washington Senators (a team long wiped off of the American baseball map) with “Heart,” making you laugh with blue balls anthem “The Game” (surprisingly racy for the time!), and just flat out entertaining you with “Two Lost Souls.” The theme of the devil and his seductive associate allows for a bunch of songs about ruining peoples lives – done comically – which contrasts heartbreakingly with Joe’s love song to his long suffering wife (“Goodbye, Old Girl”) and her return of his feeling with “Near to You.” Who would think a play about a negligent husband and a forgotten wife would leave you wanting to see both of them together again? But Damn Yankees does – it’s just a spectacularly well written show.

You can still screw this up, though: but I’m pleased to report this production was (pun alert) “pitch perfect,” from the thrilling singing all the way through to the prints of the women’s dresses. (Sure the guys had too long hair but I thought it made them look yummy.) And then the production ramped it up, with great dance numbers (the baseball team in towels! I didn’t know where to look!) and vibrant performances. I was especially impressed with Jonathan D Ellis as Mr Applegate, from the moment he appeared cozied up above the fireplace in a sharkskin suit to his burn-the-house down number “Those Were the Good Old Days,” in which he had us eating out of the palm of his hand – it was almost embarrassing but we were simply mesmerized. You could say the same for the backline on Poppy Tierney’s first dress – what a Lola! I think she had a rough job ahead of her – first, competing with the legacy of Gwen Verdon, and secondly, making a character work that has nearly three entirely different personalities to manage – while singing and hoofing her heart out. And you know what? She won me over. (I’m sorry Gwen, it had to happen eventually.)

Being Meg, the faithful wife, is hardly as exciting, but Nova Skipp kept us hoping for Joe to succeed, and both our Joes (old Joe, Gary Bland, and young Joe, Alex Lodge) were warm and winning with voices that sold the parts. Gosh, I want to be critical, but when it comes down to complaining about how Lola would have looked better in latex and Elizabeth Futter’s voice couldn’t compete with the men in the ball team, well, sometimes, in Lola’s words, you’ve got to “give in.” This was a great show, ridiculously underpriced in its unmiked glory, and I was planning my return about ten minutes into it. Don’t miss it.

(This review was for the opening performance on Tuesday, October 7th, 2014. It continues through November 8th and I expect it will sell out soon. Look, here’s the link to the Landor, if you don’t click it now you’ll only have yourself to blame!)

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Aladdin’s Magic: Limp (Review of Pamela Anderson/ Brian Blessed “Aladdin”) – New Wimbledon Theatre

December 16, 2009

Pam Anderson in a panto? Pam Anderson? As an American, I figured her visit to the annual extravaganza at the New Wimbledon Theater – which I’d previously skipped due to its sky-high prices – presented nearly unlimited opportunities for naff, whether due to her slim acting skills, her utter inexperience on the stage, or her complete lack of familiarity with the panto form (and as an American I can guarantee she had no idea what was going to be going on). And then there was the Brian Blessed factor. I only knew him as King of the Hawkmen from the 80s camp classic Flash Gordon; but per my intended fellow Pantonian Wechsler, Blessed is also well known … for a near pathological obsession with large bosoms. “Basically,” he sold it to me,”the two of them should work like baking soda and lye. I expect the fire brigade will be on alert.”

Two months later, the entire premise had degenerated into farce. Pam was now only scheduled for a third of the run; wait, no, she wasn’t going to even do that much & Ruby Wax was filling in for her on what was supposed to be opening night. And then my party of six went down to five, no 6, no (day of show flu) five, then finally six, then yet another person cancelled and even my original recommender said a work emergency might keep him away. It all seemed so doomed, really; was this a panto Black Mariah?

As it turns out, this is a perfectly servicable panto, with all of the requirements; silly costumes, silly dances, and silly songs. The audience participation is rather limited, though; while we got lots of booing in, there was a real shortage of “it’s behind you”s, the “oh no you’re not”s were forced, and the call-out to Aladdin’s brother Wishee Washee was unnecessarily complex.

Fortunately the overwhelming presence of Brian Blessed ably compensated for these deficits. As evil sorcerer Iwanna Banana (or suchlike), he eagerly engaged the audience, keeping us on point and the story moving along. Of _course_ he had the villainous laugh down pat, and he threw in references to his previous star turns and even his personal achievements to up the humor, but what he really had was stage presence in buckets. Twanky got the good costumes, but Blessed unequivocably owned this show.

Now that’s not to say that Pam wasn’t entertaining as the genie of the lamp – she got her lines right, participated gamely in an extremely comic dance routine, and mocked her own fame – but it was the slave of the ring (Djalenga Scott) who was cranking out the sex appeal. And Twankey (Jonathan D Ellis) was a pretty sharp dame, but …

I think this may have been where the blah dialogue, by-the-book costumes, and completely unimaginative songs cut this show off at the knees when it could have really shone. It should have gone for gaudier and even more over the top, and then this could have been the panto I was hoping for, but ultimately it felt canned and unengaging. Blessed is utterly brilliant, a panto force to be reckoned with, but even the power of Pam couldn’t keep this Aladdin from being limp.

*Now get Blessed and Ian McKellen in a show written by that genius at the Hackney Empire and _then_ we’d have a show to talk about for years!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, December 15th, 2009. Performances continue, with a variety of genies, through January 10th. For other reviews, see the Evening Standard and the West End Whingers.)