Posts Tagged ‘Upstairs at the Gatehouse’

Jewish Hollywood – Aria Entertainment at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

March 19, 2022

In times like these – and it seems like it’s getting more like “times like these” by the day – an evening of great music and escapist entertainment seems like just the thing. What did I know about the impact of Jews on Hollywood, or the presence of Jewish culture in American movies? Honestly, nothing, but I was looking forward to learning. I had high hopes for my return to Upstairs at the Gatehouse and I was not disappointed.

The show is done as a bit of a history lesson, with songs generously leavened in (not always in historical order) and lots of breaks for showbiz fun. It is a four hander, two women and two men (one pair twenties-ish – Mackenzie Mellen and Jack Reitman – and the other in the prime of middle age – Sue Kelvin and Howard Samuels), with a generously sized band that included a person who played flute (I think!), clarinet, and possibly saxophone. The reeds gave a more klezmer-y sound to the ensemble than the usual house band – and were perfect for the show.

We started with the birth of Hollywood – well, the birth of cinema in America, really! Jewish immigrants, very recently arrived escaping European pogroms and with names frequently sanitized by Ellis Island authorities, started in the business right away, even before there were movies (kinetoscopes, mutoscopes, etc, in penny arcades) in New York, which ws the original home of America’s film industry. It was a good business to get into if you were a nobody from nowhere as the mass entertainment industry was considered low class and thus had a lower barrier to entry.

Despite working quickly up to the point of owning many of the Hollywood studios (where the industry settled due to the ease of filming under sunnier skies), the studio owners didn’t pursue Jewish themes, although there was a notable exception for The Jazz Singer, the breakthrough talkie about a young man struggling between his father’s dream for him to take up his position as the cantor for their synagogue and his wish for a Broadway career that raked in the dough. This was (shock!) the last Jewish themed Hollywood movie for decades …. until Exodus became a best seller (then a blockbuster movie, with Paul Newman as the star) … paving the way for people to be themselves, to be Jewish, and to be stars.

Photo credit: Louis Burgess

There’s a lot more story to be told, but let’s skip that and get to the fun! In addition to comical retellings of the two pivotal movies above (no blackface, thank God), the show features just buckets of great tunes, and has a cast that knows how to belt them. Kelvin was great at recreating that great star Sophie Tucker (“My Yiddische Momme”) as well as the very modern Midler, while Samuels was perfect at clowning as well as delivering tunes. The cast threw themselves into “Tradition” (<I>Fiddler on the Roof</I>) just as much as “God Bless America” (although I questioned Irving Berlin being called a jingoist – he was a patriot, which is different) and the very troubling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and “Springtime for Hitler.” It covered a very wide range of American history but with such great songs to illustrate the stories, it, unsurprisingly, never got dull!

For me, though, the highlight of the evening was a brief turn given by Mackenzie Mellen performing “Don’t Rain on my Parade” – it was so heartfelt and vibrant it seemed for a moment the windows might just burst off the building to let her song radiate through the entire neighborhood – wow! Her bio was the shortest in the program but I feel that with her star power she’ll be crossing my path many times again.

(Jewish Hollywood continues at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until April 17th, 2022. This review is for a show that took place on March 17th.)


Review – La Calisto – Hampstead Garden Opera at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

April 30, 2014

It was a great surprise to me to find that a composer I’d never heard of a year ago suddenly had not one, but two of his operas being performed within the space of months. It’s odd, too, that after a decade of seeing Baroque operas at least twice annually, not once had I heard of Francesco Cavalli. I got an initial taste with Ormindo as presented at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: it was fluffy but with lots of beautiful singing, exciting dramatic moments, and all sorts of counter-tenor action. Still, I wound up leaving before the third act. Would Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of his La Calisto suffer similarly?

As it turns out, La Calisto was one of the liveliest baroque operas I’ve ever seen, with short, fast moving acts that reminded me of an upscale Xena episode scored for the harpsichord. The characters and scenes were all familiar ones from mythology 101; lecherous Jove, gullible Callisto, angry Juno – but we had the addition of a guilt-ridden Diana and a genuinely noble shepherd. I enjoyed the interplay of the familiar and the modified – it made me more invested in the story. Theresa Pells was terribly charismatic as Callisto, with her rangy build and gorgeous red hair; very Hunger Games meets The Bacchae. But still, you couldn’t help but cheer for straight-from-the-playbook Juno (Philippa Boyle) as she came in in her glorious spangled black dress with a cape of irridescent feathers – what slip of a girl, no matter how dedicated to her path, could stand against her? I found it all very exciting.

However, it’s not just about looks when you’re at the opera – though for me, capturing my imagination is key to getting me to sit back and enjoy the music. The lightly designed set was ideal for this – it was a desert, it was a cave, it was a love bower – I loved the choice to let less say more. The opposite approach was taken for the orchestra, with which about 10 musicians was positively crammed into the minute space they occupied. Unfortunately, they suffered a bit in comparison to the ones I heard at my recent trip to the Sam Wanamaker – but it’s a bit unfair to compare an orchestra picked to accompany a Royal Opera production with this group of much younger performers. Still, the tempi was occasionally off, and I heard a few more sour notes than I expected (period instruments can be very temperamental – I swear the intervals would be called for just to do retuning if nothing else).

Amongst the singers, the standout to me was was Peter Brooke as Jove, whose creamy bass voice seemed to call for a fork and perhaps a few strawberries. He showed a real comic talent, nicely breaking into a falsetto when playing Diana, and later looking quite contrite when wooed in mistake by Diana’s (male) paramour. He did it all with a great sense of timing and self-awareness – this opera is meant to be funny and Jove’s behavior is worth giggling at, but if it were taken too far it would have been distracting. Pells was unfortunately not as strong in her role, and struggled a bit with the vocal ornamentation in some of the more throwaway bit of the music. Still, these moments were neither off-key or in any other way grating, and during the moments when her character’s singing was at the front, she was a pleasure to listen to. My thought is that with more work in this musical specialism she’ll likely improve, but that she was so generally outstanding (especially as a dramatic performer) that mine is just a quibble. Overall, my first outing to the Hampstead Garden Opera was a real success, and, which I never expected to be sitting listening to a theorbo in the same place where I’d seen Guys and Dolls, the venue itself proved to be exactly the intimate sort in which Baroque music thrives best.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Sunday, April 27th, 2014. It continues through May 4th.)

Mini-review – Guys and Dolls – Upstairs at the Gatehouse

January 12, 2012

It’s a bit late in the run to be doing a review of Upstairs at the Gatehouse’s Guys and Dolls as the show’s been open for a month and is pretty much sold out for the rest of its run. However, I was fortunate enough to get tickets (before Christmas) to last Friday’s performance, thanks to a hot tip from Ought To Be Clown’s Twitter feed (basically, “Amazeballs”). (And they’ve added a Saturday January 28th matinee so maybe you can get in on that.)

ALERT! ALERT! This show has been extended and is now running: Tuesday 31st January through Friday 3rd February with four 7.30pm shows! Don’t miss it!

We’re off to a good start with the fabulous Frank Loesser score, full of hummable tunes (“Luck Be a Lady,” “Guys and Dolls,” “A Bushel and a Peck”) and songs with hilarious lyrics (“Rocking the Boat,” “Adelaide’s Lament”). The set is minimal but extremely flexible – with a newspaper stand, it’s a city street; add some tables with candles on them, and you’ve got Adele’s club; a few colorful lampshades and suddenly we’re in Cuba. I had no problem completely suspending disbelief as the cast carefully pushed walls around and dropped burning objects into their pockets – and at one point handed out hats to the audience so we could fill out Jet’s “marker” for 12 sinners (when only 6 cast members were available).

So what it comes down to is talent, and the Gatehouse did a damned good job with a Jet (Jamie Sampson) who completely surpassed Brando with his sexiness and smooth voice. Thanks to him, I enjoyed this production far more than the film (all I’d ever seen before), because instead of watching Brando be Brando (and Sinatra be Sinatra), instead I got actors who were trying to be their characters. Rebecca Sutherland as Adele definitely had the feeling of a shop-worn girlfriend (and was a big presence on stage), but was unfortunately her level was not matched by Amy Bailey (as missionary Sarah Brown). Sarah isn’t as fun as a role, given that she’s a bit of a prig, but she has a chance to shine through her singing – and Bailey just didn’t have the pipes to do the songs justice. She managed to do enough for the small theater, but with such strong people beside her, she looked weak.

But this is an ensemble piece, and boy! With the dancing and singing, these gangsters sure did shine! They flew through the air, they spun, they blew my mind in the crap game sequence, they proved to me once again that there is NOTHING like seeing a fantastic show with the cast practically in your lap, especially with the energetic choreography this show had. I was left making small complaints about Adele’s fellow Hotboxers having period inappropriate short shorts on. And, really, that just wasn’t too horrible as the legs they revealed were very toned.

So even though I can’t add much to the shouts of approval in the blogosphere for Guys and Dolls, I had to say, for those of you who CAN fit it in … it’s a damned good night out and well worth the ticket cost.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, January 6th, 2012. The show continues through … why look, longer than it was when I started writing this review … February 3rd!)

Review – The Drowsy Chaperone – Upstairs at the Gatehouse

September 28, 2010

I generally speaking like classical musicals. Anyone who reads this will have noted my dislike for Mr. Lloyd Webber (perhaps that’s Sir to you but you’ve got to earn it in my book) and utter failure to see Wicked; Schönberg and Boublil are artisans of dreck in my world. Yet peeking out of the land of desolation that is, to me, the world of musical theater post-Kander and Ebb, is a world of a few twinkling stars, musicals that actually succeed in being entertaining, telling a story, and sending me home with a song in my heart.

High in that constellation of stars is The Drowsy Chaperone, a show that, in its short-lived West End incarnation, proved life-changing for me in some ways (as it convinced me the West End Whingers’ blog was a source of genius tips on what to see, which led to, oh, writing this blog, eventually, and being a part of a “theater blogging community”); but which, most importantly, filled my head full of wonderful memories of sequins, tap dancing, high kicks (Summer Strallen!), and songs I’ve sung to myself ever since. I went twice in two weeks; I bought the soundtrack; I bought the t-shirt (“Oops Girl”); I went online and bought the monkey (probably best you not ask). I was sorry when it closed (prematurely, in my mind) and have spent a lot of time wondering why such a witty, musical show failed to find an audience when it had me crying in my Cosmopolitan; bad publicity, I think, was the cause. Still, it was a brilliant show and I will regularly pop the show disc in when I need a little pick-me-up.

Cue this summer and news that the Upstairs at the Gatehouse pub theater was remounting Drowsy. It seemed odd to me that a show so big and so new would be coming to such a small space (more recently home to Calamity Jane). Could it do it justice? Well, I wasn’t going to be TOO picky; I loved the show, I was desperate to see it again, so I paid my money and headed on down a day or so after opening night hoping for the best.

The show was, in some ways, more engaging than the original version I’d seen; the “man in chair” (Matthew Lloyd Davies), who spends the show explaining to the audience why he is so fond of this “silly 20s musical” The Drowsy Chaperone, really looks at and talks to the audience and even gets them (er, us) to respond. The dance routines (the big ones being the tap-dancing “Cold Feet” and “I Don’t Wanna Show Off No More”) were, if less impressive in their execution, rather exhilirating in being just a few feet away (though the Novello, of course, was able to put in an Underling (Ted Merwood) who could tap dance as well as the two young men who lead “Cold Feet”).

Best of all was, shockingly enough, Adolfo (Michael Howe). He was right in the audience – possibly in some women’s laps at some point and practically with his nose down their shirts – even at the very beginning, to hysterical result. He put me off a bit (well, got a laugh for an accident) when he slipped while leaning on his cane in his first scene – but then completely topped that by falling flat out when he came racing out from a door and his cape was caught behind him. I thought it was just bad luck, but then I realized: they were all pratfalls! It was part of the comedic Adolfo personality. He just pushed the character right on over the top and let him, well, “keep falling” as it were, with great results. Last I saw this show he was a throwaway stereotype; in the Gatehouse version, Adolfo upped the game for everybody else, outshining not just the Chaperone (Siobhan McCarthy in a role I can’t image how to make more interesting – it’s just kind of flat) but even little Miss Showoff herself, Janet Vandergraaf (Amy Diamond).

While Alolfo’s falls could eventually be ascribed to comic genius, other elements seem to speak of a certain cheapness I associate with fringe theater. Janet’s first “Showoff” costume, a tennis outfit, was poorly joined at the back and left half of her black-satin rump exposed – while I realized she needed a quick change outfit, all of the costuming money for the show should really have been blown on her character and having this particular outfit so … halfassed really detracted from the effect of this scene (and I think wouldn’t have cost too much to fix). Ursula Mohan as Mrs Tottendale seemed timid rather than ditzy; during the “spray” scene she merely misted Underling, and during the second act she had … was it toliet paper on her shoe? I couldn’t decide if it were an effect or an accident given the whole Adolfo thing. And finally, while “Trix the Aviatrix” made a wonderful entrance in her tiny airplane in act one, her actual appearence … via a television … at the end of the second act utterly mystified me. Did Sophia Nomvete just not want to waste a whole evening on a ten minute scene, or was the Gatehouse too cheap to pay her to sit around? I mean, it was done well enough (the character stayed on the screen for the entire “freeze” during the power outage), but … it just seemed a little bit off to me somehow. And by “off” I mean cheap.

Still, the overall effect of this show was very good, taking full advantage of an intimate space and a fantastic show to make a good night of theater. I absolutely feel it was worth £16 and consider it a “must see” for this fall’s London theater scene for the musicals fan. Who cares about The Donmar Warehouse: get thee to the Gatehouse for Drowsy Chaperone!

(This review is for a performance that took place Saturday night, September 25th, 2010. The show continues through October 31st, 2010. Please see