Posts Tagged ‘Simon Butteriss’

Review – Princess Ida – The Steam Industry and Szpiezak Productions at Finborough Theater

March 31, 2015

Living in the UK has transformed how I’ve seen Gilbert and Sullivan’s work. From fusty and dusty it’s gone all topsy-turvy, thanks to the graceful restoration work performed under Sasha Regan’s fine eye at the Union Theater and now the rambunctious re-engagement of Charles Court Opera. As a mainstay of US Am Dram groups, it was turgid and nap-inducing: with all-male casts (like Regan’s Pirates of Penzance) and clever restagings a la much of Shakespeare’s canon (in the case of Charles Court – the goffick Patience was an excellent example), we have been allowed to re-engage with the work from a narrative and a musical standpoint. The bones of Gilbert and Sullivan, like the oak supports of an old house, are amazing: strip off the wallpaper and the adversion to discussion anything sexual and suddenly you have singable, witty musicals populated by eminently memorable characters all being very funny.

Yet bubbling beneath the surface like a sulfuric spring in the Med is the possibility that even G&S may have had a few clunkers. Look, for example, at Princess Ida. I asked a friend about this production, and his response was that it was Gilbert “punching down,” as offensive as Taming of the Shrew but “with less excuse.” I was shocked: this is the biggest Gilbert and Sullivan fan that I know! But I was also a bit put off when I saw that it hadn’t been performed professionally in London “for over 20 years” (per the website). And then I discovered that it was written in iambic verse. Oh man! Obviously it didn’t get produced for two decades because it’s a total dog! Arrgh! But I had already booked tickets for Saturday’s show and I decided to just tough it out.

As it turns out, both the warnings I’d received and the fears I’d conceived were unfounded. Yes, this play pokes fun at women’s education, making the point that members of the “gentle sex” are generally incapable of intellectual rigor due to their sensibilities; but there was no doubt in my mind that the men of this piece were also presented as fairly brainless and driven by their hormones. So my worries about it being mean and intolerable were allayed; in fact, one of the highlights of the evening was a song called “Must” (in the original by Lady Blanche, but I believe sung by Lady Meg – Victoria Quigley – in this production). It ends in a call for women to get the vote, and I found it very touching – but, as it turns, this creation, both in verse and sentiment, is almost entirely the work of Phil Wilmott, who looked back on this musical moment through the lens of history and decided to expand it. There was also a rather revised ending that proposes a much happier future for some than the hopelessly heterocentric original could have ever conceived; it was obviously not G&S but it was funny and I think it felt fresh and appropriate.

From the production side, there’s no denying it was done on a budget – two electric pianos (not that you could fit much more in the Finborough and as it was, one of them nearly wound up in the audience); a set that barely manages two different looks; and costumes that aim for Alma Tadema but manage with their unusual seaming to hit Hubba Hubba Honey (for both Ida and Prince Cyril – Ida’s should be less bum hugging and Cyril ought not to be so short as to have us thinking of Scotsman and their underkilt attire). But, still, the goal isn’t to recreate the original, but to give us a change to experience the music (written, all agree, when G&S were at their creative heights) and (most of) the plot. Wisely, there is no stinting with the quality of the performers. Bridget Costello is effortlessly winning as Princess Ida, with her warm voice and sparkling blue eyes: of course all of the princes of the kingdoms would come to win her hand! And to cast Simon Butteriss (perhaps you remember him from Topsy-Turvy?) as Lord Gama, Ida’s uptight yet lecherous guardian, is just stonking good luck for us in the audience – he’s supercilious and unctuous, a horrible combination of Grand Moff Tarkin and Benny Hill – but most importantly, a damned fine singer with a sharp sense of comic timing. In fact, down to the maids/maidens and the lesser princes, the whole cast emanates personality and tunefulness, so that all we need to be transported is small hints in the forms of props and carefully draped statues. It’s an incredibly enjoyable event.

Is it, though, a textbook example of theater of the Victorian age and the sentiments that the Victorians held? No, it is modern, both in its approach and its reconstruction of the dialogue and lyrics to meet modern views while still keeping to the arc of the story. This allows us to hear wonderful songs that we would otherwise have missed out on while being extravagantly amused. I highly enjoyed my night out and, based on ticket sales, you had better jump on those tickets or you may have to wait another 20 years to get your chance.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 28, 2015. It continues through April 18th.)

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Review – Coco – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells

June 9, 2011

Apologies for the delay in publishing this review: at some time after the show my program for Coco disappeared. This meant I couldn’t credit any of the cast, as Sadler’s Well’s website and the Lost Musicals websites say absolutely nothing about the brilliant cast of this (and all) shows. Dammit all, I will have to remember that when I write here, it’s not just for me, it’s for posterity, as there needs to be a record of who was working on it somewhere! But … HURRAY I found it, so nearly a week later my review is ready at last.

A musical never performed in London, written by the great Alan J Lerner, with music by Andre Previn? This kind of solid gold pedigree is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Lost Musicals, and their choice of the neglected Coco was a good one, a treat for it to finally be performed in Europe and a delight for those of us who like our songs singable and our characters unforgettable. While the concept of Coco Chanel as the center of a musical seems highly promising on its own (ooh, the clothes! ooh, the glamor!), I was fascinated that this play was actually about a woman who was old and powerful – and not the spiteful head of a family, but a businesswoman. It’s a character type I haven’t really seen a show about before.Then you put yourself in the mind of it being Katherine Hepburn, and, wow, it all just really worked, despite having a lead role that’s not really one for a singer – it was written for a woman with a forceful stage presence. And Sara Kestelman did a good job of being vibrant, passionate, bitchy, thoughtful, everything Coco needed to be – it was hard to take your eyes off of her.

I’m not one much for summarizing plots for shows in my reviews, but I’ll make an exception here due to the obscurity of the show. It’s the early 50s. Dior’s new look, all pinched waists and complex undergarments, is in. Chanel is, however you cut it, out – but she wants back in, against the advice of her lawyer Louis (Edward Petherbridge, who did a great job of being both supportive and long suffering) and assistant Pignolle (a fine comic turn by Myra Sands),- and, well, everyone else ( in the number “The World Belongs to the Young”). She throws open her salon to some models and finds a sort of “junior Coco” in Noelle (Robine Lundi), an orphan who’s been slumming in Paris as a live-in girlfriend for Georges (David Habbin). Noelle gets the modelling job, Georges says she must quit “or else;” Coco lectures Noelle about the joy of making your own money and being independent (in the song “The money rings out like freedom” … “Clink clink a-jingle! …. Oh debt where is thy sting?” and with such aphorisms as “One needs independence and not equality. Equality is a step down.”), convincing Noelle to keep the job and be her own woman. Over the course of the play, we see flashbacks to how Coco got her life to the point it is now … where she’s basically a contented woman despite being single … and watch as an interfering “assistant” Simon (Simon Butteriss, a total show stealer with his schadenfreude-driven second act song “Fiasco”) attempts to mutilate her style by adding bits and bobs and dealie-boppers to the clothes (I believe this was meant to be the designer Lanvin). She cuts Simon out, presents her collection as she wants it, then faces financial ruin as Paris decides she’s just not very fashionable. But then she’s saved by a deal with a bunch of American department stores (in the witty number “Orbachs Bloomingdale Best and Saks”) to sell her clothes in a sort of cut down, mass-market way – rather comically living up to what she says at the beginning that it’s the age when the thing to do is to follow the masses, not lead them. Noelle and Georges also get back together – he with a new-found respect for her – and the play ends on a happy note for all.

I’ve seen at least three new musicals in the last six months and the wit of this show blew them all out of the water. Previn’s songs were often short (I’m guessing due to being written for a weak voiced lead) but they were still full of hooks with great Lerner lyrics – in fact it’s a week later and I’m sitting here singing “Fiasco” to myself. And the dialogue itself had me and my friend David giggling and guffawing in a way I had not experienced in ages. “Today they think ‘chic’ is someone riding on a camel” … “Mademoiselle will never go back to work! She is too old … I mean too rich and too wise” … “Forgive me for not writing, I had nothing to do and couldn’t get around to it.” What a treat! To top it off, the show was introduced by Liz Roberts, the widow of Alan J Lerner and a piece of living history. It was just such a rich experience … oh man! What a wonderful Sunday afternoon. Anyway, once again “Lost Musicals” has delivered a wonderful entertainment: I can’t wait until Mexican Hayride!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, June 5th, 2011. The final performance will take place on Sunday, June 12th, 2011. These shows consistently sell out so I advise booking early.)