+3 Review: Paper Hearts the Musical (Underbelly Med Quad: 5-29 Aug: 18.40: 1hr 15mins)

“Potential to be a real best-seller”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

A musical about finding love in a bookshop sounds like pretty much all of my favourite things in one. And just like everyone’s favourite independent bookshop, the first thing that strikes me about Paper Hearts is how little space there is to move around in on stage.  Unfortunately in this case it doesn’t work in the group’s favour, and if they had been used to rehearsing in a larger space, the translation to this venue isn’t effective enough to overcome many of the obstacles faced by that challenge: the choreography looks clumsy, performers squeeze past each other when moving about and the musicians are a bit too dominant visually – it’s a shame that this is the lasting impression I have of this show rather than the artistic merits, of which there are many.

The story follows Atticus Smith (Adam Small) – a book store manager and hapless writer – who is determined to finish his novel, even though his store is very quickly going out of business and is set to be bought by a corporate giant. But of course, there’s a convenient young writers’ competition he could enter and win to save the day. So far, so so. Throw into the mix a difficult relationship with his father and a chance meeting with the consultant set to take over the bookshop and an intriguing plot unfurls.

What I particularly enjoyed about this show in terms of narrative are the clever parallels between Atticus’s own life and the characters in his book, and the relationship he as a writer has with those characters. Even though the book is set in Russia in the 1940s, Atticus channels his situation through his leading character and inadvertently ends up resolving his own problems.

From a performance perspective, bizarrely it’s the Russian scenes that come across as the most genuine and accomplished, and these are the most enjoyable to watch. Much of the rest of the performance, however, feels very rushed. From the opening scene where characters are introduced, to Atticus’s break-up with his girlfriend, meeting someone else, having a huge argument the next day and winning a writing competition, it all seems quite superficial. There are lots of lovely ideas in there, but, much like the stage, everything is a bit too crammed in.

Liam O’Rafferty’s music and lyrics are tight, with several great original songs. Hot is a fun and sassy number with great personality, Shame is a cutting and comedic look at the flaws of the two central characters, and title song Paper Hearts has a real West End ring to it. All songs featured within the Russian scenes have great folk authenticity, so musically this show has a lot going for it.

I’d love to see Paper Hearts come back as a longer, more developed piece, and performed in a different venue that gives it room to breathe. It has the potential to be a real best-seller.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Spring Awakening (Paradise in St Augustine’s: 5-13 Aug: 21.30: 1hr 30mins)

“I’d encourage anyone into musical theatre to go and see it “

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

With the band clearly visible on an otherwise bare stage, looking cool and every inch the 00s rockers in white t-shirts, EUSOG’s interpretation of Spring Awakening feels more like a concert than a traditional musical. The full (Broadway) version runs over two acts and well over two hours, but this is a stripped back, 90 minute version, which I have to say I prefer. It centres on the songs as vehicles to express emotion, with narrative, dialogue and choreography seamlessly fitting in around them. As a performance it’s compact, it’s flowing, it gets to the point and stays there, and to me one of the real triumphs in this production is how each number and scene overlap and blend, rich with energy, tenderness and life.

While musically Spring Awakening may not be as powerful as other rock operas like RENT, this cast do a fantastic job of squeezing every drop of emotion out of each song to make each lyric really hit home, and William Briant’s band let rip with rousing and powerful accompaniment throughout. The company perform every chorus number with great vitality, from the loud The Bitch of Living, to the very delicate and uplifting The Song of Purple Summer. The harmonies are great, the blending on point, and individual solo lines delivered with aplomb.

Some of the acting was a little shaky: Wendla’s rape and Moritz’s suicide didn’t ring as emotionally true as the rest of the performance, but this is a young company dealing with very difficult material, so we must cut a little slack – sometimes the professionals slip-up too.

It’s the power and energy of the cast that make this show a real treat though, demonstrating talent and professionalism far beyond what one might expect from students. Nitai Levi has astonishing control and presence as Melchior, Greg Williamson is a wonderfully pained Moritz with a great pop-rock voice while Isabella Rogers is also beautifully understated as Ilse. Caroline Elms and James Strahan capably perform all the adult roles between them, with great changes in character and authority to make them believable. A special mention to Strahan for his quick turnaround from the emotional funeral scene to playing a completely different character literally seconds later.

It’s such a shame EUSOG’s run ends this weekend, as I’d encourage anyone into musical theatre to go and see it – it really is a masterclass in getting the basics right. If I could, I’d go again.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: [title of show] (C Cubed: 4-29 Aug: 21.20: 1hr 30mins)

“The company’s voices blend beautifully to create some lovely moments”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I always get excited when a new and ambitious theatre company decides to put its own spin on a show that only received limited success its first time around, in order to try and find that winning formula. In this case, Cobbles and Rhyme attempt to give a very minimalist makeover to [title of show], which, though enjoyable, unfortunately ends up languishing in musical theatre mediocrity.

[title of show] is by nature the anti-musical – intentionally flying in the face of the fourth wall and big production values, using just a keyboard, a bare stage, four actors and and four chairs. This makes it perfect for translating to Fringe venues, and with some clever staging Cobbles and Rhyme effectively create sympathetic intimacy and a stripped back feel that really suits the show’s themes.

However, beyond this it is a shame to see that some of the basic flaws in the musical itself were not addressed, making it at times painfully obvious exactly why the show wasn’t a huge hit on Broadway. Granted, this is probably more down to terms within the performance rights than the company’s ability, but I can only critique based on what I see.

It takes the best part of 25 minutes and six songs to get past the “Let’s write a musical/I don’t know what to write” stage, and throughout the first half of the performance I felt like I learned next to nothing about the personalities of each character. It is only towards the end in Awkward Photo Shoot when tensions start to emerge and priorities conflict that we really discover their mettle, and it’s a shame this occurs so late. This is a show that just needs to get to the meat faster and stop being quite so self-indulgent and self-important.

Musically, it’s ok – there aren’t really any standout numbers, though closing tune Nine People’s Favorite Thing is quite hummable as you exit the auditorium. Complex harmonies are well delivered throughout and the company’s voices blend beautifully to create some lovely moments. The cast certainly give it their all, even though for me it’s the supporting characters of Heidi (Heidi Parsons) and Susan (Charlie Walker) who outshine their male counterparts with stunning vocals and gripping stage presence.

Overall it’s nice, it’s funny and it’s well sung, but I think it lacks that killer punch to have a really big impact at the Fringe.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Legally Blonde: The Musical (King’s: 16 – 19 March, ’16)

“Catchy songs, big dance numbers and laughs a-plenty”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

For those who know the film, the premise of the musical is almost exactly identical – blonde bombshell and fashionista Elle Woods from Malibu, California is determined to bag her man, so she buries her head in books and chases him to Harvard law school in the hope of impressing him. The accompanying score is very poppy and upbeat, and while not to my personal taste, even the sternest of faces can’t help but bop along with some of the numbers.

On the whole, local troupe the Bohemians Lyrics Opera Company handle this big production very well – with some impressive dance routines and real powerhouse vocals throughout. The mind boggles at some of the quick changes performed, especially those done on stage, so credit where credit’s due for the risk and professionalism to carry those off. At times, particularly in Whipped into Shape, the performance felt a little flat and a stretch too far for this amateur group – perhaps a bit of shakiness on opening night or not quite having the musical tempos nailed – but otherwise it’s very well rehearsed and full of personality.

Lydia Carrington gives it her all as leading legal lady Elle Woods, and shines with fantastic energy and likeability. Her spirit never falters throughout – impressive considering she is barely ever off stage – and she shows great range and versatility to reflect the changing mood in each scene. However, it’s Lyndsey McGhee as Paulette who raises the biggest cheer of the night with the very moving Ireland (watch out for that towards the end of Act 1). Her voice is deep, rich and she delivers a knockout performance. It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of her throughout the show.

While the leads very much hold their own throughout the performance, for me it is some of the cameo roles that make this production really enjoyable: Ross Stewart is eminently watchable as UPS guy Kyle, while Sam Eastop and Andrew Knox make a great comic pairing in Gay or European. And of course, there are dogs. Scene-stealing dogs. You have been warned…

Yes it’s cheesy, yes it’s American, and yes at times it’s a bit ridiculous, but it’s also a show full of catchy songs, big dance numbers and laughs a-plenty (my favourite line being “I see dead people” in relation to the rather bizarre inclusion of a Greek chorus). If you like the sound of all that then you’ll love this production.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 March)

Visit the King’s Theatre archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Guys & Dolls (Church Hill Theatre, 9-13 Feb. ’16)

Adam Makepeace as Nicely Nicely Johnson

Adam Makepeace as Nicely Nicely Johnson

“A feel-good romp of a show”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Guys & Dolls has a special place in my heart, as it was my first footlights show at university some ten years ago. I remember the hours I spent rehearsing the gruelling dance sequences and complex harmonies, so I was amazed at how well this cast of Edinburgh University students delivered on both counts. The scene in Havana was perhaps a bit ambitious choreographically and could have contained more progression and showpiece moments, but overall the chorus numbers were performed with great vim and pizazz.

The stars of show also delivered with aplomb. Ellie Millar as Sgt Sarah Brown had a voice that danced with the purity and clarity worthy of a leading lady, and her rendition of If I Were a Bell struck a fine balance between comedy and stunning vocal range. Oliver Barker oozed with masculinity and presence as Sky Masterson, while Tom Whiston brought a likeable naivety to Nathan Detroit. Mae Hearons was a delight as Miss Adelaide, and really came into her own in act two with a string of dazzling songs.

While the vocals across the board during the first half of the production were a little shaky (I’ll put it down to nerves in front of a packed house early in the run), the second half was littered with many a five-star moment, including Adelaide’s moving second lament, a Sinatra-esque Luck Be a Lady, and the precise and energetic Crapshooters Ballet. However, for me, the vocal performance of the night was by Adam Makepeace as Nicely Nicely Johnson, who delivered a rousing and extremely capable rendition of the tricky Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat. A special mention also to Tilly Bartholomew as Arvide Abernathy, who was charming and note perfect in More I Cannot Wish You, and displayed great tenderness and well-placed comedy throughout the performance.

This show aimed to take the original musical back to its roots in the 1930s, and some nice touches in Grace Dickson’s choreography – particularly in Take Back Your Mink – felt very reminiscent of that golden era. Director Lucy Evans also cast some females in traditionally male roles as a nod to some of the period’s female gangsters, and, while a brave choice, I felt Evans could have gone one step further in allowing these characters to explore their femininity and interact with the male characters as women, rather than women pretending to be men. Still, Lila Pitcher was commanding as Chicago big-shot Big Jule in an interesting gender twist.

Yet for all the great work by the performers and band (who never faltered under Steven Segaud’s masterful musical direction), I was a little disappointed in the production values of the set and costumes. These elements were quite basic, and with a bit more attention could have added much more “wow factor” and style to be sympathetic to the show’s overall creative aims and chosen time period.

All-in-all, a feel-good romp of a show. Don’t gamble – buy a ticket.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 February)

Go to the Edinburgh University Footlights

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RENT (Paradise in St Augustine’s, 7 – 30 Aug : 18.00 : 2hrs 40 mins)

“Full of the life and passion that the ethos of this show embodies”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

There’s always something really special about seeing the closing night of a particular show, as they can often trigger performers into giving everything they have left in their bodies to deliver the performance of their lives. That’s exactly what happened with Uncompromising Artistry’s Edinburgh Fringe production of RENT.

Opening chorus number Rent was bursting with energy and was a fantastic introduction to the desperation, hardship and grit of 90s New York, while being full of the life and passion that the ethos of this show embodies. The company filled the stage with their presence and the theatre with stunning vocals, and it was a truly wonderful sequence. It seems somewhat unfortunate that after setting the bar so high so early on, the remaining chorus numbers, although excellent, were not quite able to live up to that show-stopping standard.

There were however, some exhilarating solo performances. For me, Johnny Newcomb absolutely stole the show as Roger, bringing a wonderful fragility to the character, while nailing every note he sung. He was captivating to watch in every scene, and showed a huge emotional range, even in the chorus numbers when he wasn’t centre of attention.

Injoy Fountain was also incredibly engaging in each of her minor roles, bringing bags of vitality to every scene, as well as a truly knockout vocal performance, including that riff in Seasons of Love. Zia Roberts as Joanne and Janet Krupin as Maureen really came into their own during Take Me or Leave Me, which was spine-tinglingly delivered, while Jonathan Christopher’s performance as Collins in the funeral scene was emotional enough to bring everyone to tears.

What really made this show special though was engagement with the audience and the cast’s ability to really bring us into the performance. During every chorus number the performers made eye contact with various people in the audience, always in character and with purpose. Seasons of Love was deliberately performed right at the front of the stage in one line, giving a very inclusive and welcoming feel to the show.

However, while showcasing some truly phenomenal individual moments, at times some of the staging seemed a little clumsy and laboured, with a few too many moments that relied on stage crew to move various things around on stage. In addition some of the choreography, particularly the death motif, seemed a bit over the top. But in all other respects this really was a tremendous effort and a very emotionally charged performance from still such a young company. Vive la vie bohème.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 30 August)

Visit the Other  archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Bakewell Bake Off: A New Musical (C, 5 – 22 Aug : 17.00 : 1hr 10 mins)

“A sweet, easy-to-watch crowd pleaser”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

It was only a matter of time before a GBBO-themed show made it to the Fringe, and this one has all the necessary ingredients for a sweet, easy-to-watch crowd pleaser.

The plot is exactly what you would expect – an eclectic group of wannabe bakers pit their culinary skills against each other to please three ultra-competitive judges and be crowned Bakewell’s best baker. There are some interesting characters and relationships, including a cross-dresser, a nun, a woman obsessed with Christmas, an Asian doctor (who becomes the subject of some racist abuse), and it’s all hosted by the very talkative yet incredibly likeable hostess called Victoria Sponge.

The script is full of wonderful baking-related puns: from characters whose names include, Tina Tartan and Henrietta Apfelstrudel, to a nun’s “Desecrated Coconut” cake, which tickled me the most. Indeed the writing is clever throughout the piece with lots of quips and wordplay to keep the audience amused, even if the narrative itself is pretty thin.

For me Sophie Forster as catty judge Griselda Pratt-Dewhurst delivered the best comic performance with an array of scathing put downs, while rival judge Hugh Dripp, played George Rexstrew, commanded the stage with great presence and energy.

Overall the singing was good, but at its best in the choral numbers. One can’t be too critical of sound levels of a student production in the Fringe space – the soloists did as best they could and with a full band and microphones I am sure they would have dazzled. This was most evident in gospel number Bake Your Way to Heaven, where I was longing for Imogen Coutts’s vocals to soar above the rousing backing singers. Alas, a commendable effort.

The choreography was perhaps more impressive, with a great range of routines for the varied musical numbers, all delivered deftly and with great energy. My favourite was the tango to the cleverly named “The Original Bakewell Tart”, which was performed with great finesse.

At an hour and 10 minutes this show is a decent length, although I feel that one or two of the characters could have been sacrificed to allow us to get to know the others better and build up more tension between them. There was a lovely moment towards the end between Freddie Twist (Charlie Keable) and Susie Sunflower (Ros Bell), who formed a very believable romance throughout the competition, and more layers like this would help turn this show from being good into really great.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 August)

Visit the Other archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

RENT (Greenside @ Nicolson Square, 7- 30 Aug : 22.00 : 2hr 30 mins)

“A masterclass in simplicity and stunning individual performances”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

RENT is one of my absolute favourite musicals, and I was very excited to see a full length version of it at the year’s Fringe. I’ve seen it many times in many guises, and this one offered a fresh approach, performed on a thrust stage for a more immersive experience. In some ways this interpretation packed real musical theatre punch, but unfortunately it fell flat in others.

In many ways this was a production of two halves. The first half, on the whole, was somewhat mediocre, with a few missed notes, some questionable staging (particularly in the support group scenes) and some rather “wooden” performances – Today 4 U in particular seemed a bit awkward and forced. Yet something completely flipped in the second half, and apart from the death scene that really should have been cut, it was a masterclass in both simplicity and stunning individual performances.

What I felt often held the show back was a real sense of grit and connection with the material – the opening number about the horrors of being made homeless seemed to be more mildly annoying to the actors rather than traumatic; while some of the dancing seemed clumsy and could have been sacrificed in favour of a simpler, stripped back approach. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but given how spectacular the second half was in comparison to the first, it’s clear that this company does have the ability to dazzle.

I must highlight this performance’s real triumphs. La Vie Boheme/I Should Tell you was a very powerful ensemble number and arrangement, with a genuine sense of life and passion that had been missing up until that point. In the second half, the duet Take Me or Leave Me was both incredibly staged and incredibly sung with intense grit and emotion, while the funeral scene was the stand out moment of the show. Performed with heart-wrenching rawness, it is one of the best versions of this section of the show that I have ever seen.

Rob Young as Collins was stunning throughout, with a smooth and souly voice, layered with emotion and depth. Hannah Simpson as Maureen was also very impressive, with an original take on the “drama queen”, making her cheeky and very likeable, while also delivering with a stunning vocal performance. Special mention should also go to Stephanie Marie Napier as Mimi, who struggled slightly on the higher notes in Take Me Out, but delivered all of her other songs with real gusto.

Overall, this is a very commendable effort from New Horizons Theatre Company, with some very exciting stand out moments. I hope to see them back at the Fringe next year with an even more impressive production.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Ushers: The Front of House Musical (Momentum Venues @ St Stephens: 5 – 30 Aug. 21.30: 1hr 20mins)

“Performed with real gusto and joy”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I find it very hard to review this show as I had quite high expectations in going in to see it. And while in some ways it was truly fantastic, in other areas it unfortunately missed the mark, however much I willed it to wow me.

For the most part, and especially in all the group songs, Ushers is performed with real gusto and joy. The opening number is slick, energetic and sets exactly the tone one would expect from an off West End hit. The smiles and precise choreography indicate a company that’s well rehearsed and clearly love what they’re doing.

Rory Maguire as Ben impressed me the most vocally, with a deliciously sweet high register for the power notes. Ben Fenner as Gary came across as the most real, displaying great emotional depth, while Alexandra Parkes was infectiously hilarious as Rosie.

Essentially Ushers has everything you could want in a musical: big chorus dance numbers, full of pizazz; emotional ballads; a complex, multi-layered six part showpiece song midway through; a love story; bags of humour and a dash of homoeroticism. For the musical theatre geeks amongst us there were several other small treats, in the form of creative references to other well-known shows. From the casual name drop, to that riff from the end of Defying Gravity there was plenty to smile about. Yet while a lot of the constituent parts were there, it seemed to be everything holding it together let the show down somewhat.

This may be partly due to the stage being so vast that the more intimate scenes got somewhat lost in it. Also, while the writing had a fairly decent plot (packed with laughs), some of the individual storylines were quite difficult to believe, so even though the cast acting were their hearts out, it occasionally came across as somewhat disingenuous. I lost count of how many times a character left the stage to “count programmes”, while the Theatre Manager was so outrageous it formed too much of a dischord with the rest of the action.

Unfortunately the performance I saw was blighted with a few technical failures in the sound department, but to give the actors their credit they ploughed on regardless and by the end of the show all was forgotten. Indeed the cast’s overall demeanour – from the way they ushered us to our seats when the house was open, to selling their own merchandise, and everything in between – was slick, professional and vivacious.

Overall I think the company did the best they could with what they had to work with, and anyone who loves their musical theatre or has ever worked as an Usher will really enjoy this show.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Doris, Dolly and the Dressing Room Divas (Assembly Hall: 6 – 30 Aug. 18.15 : 1hr 15 mins)

“This is the show I have been waiting for to blow me away. Wow, wow, WOW!”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

I’m sure I’ve heard it somewhere that while 13 is unlucky, 14 is incredibly lucky. And with this being my 14th review of this year’s Fringe I feel like I’ve stolen absolutely everyone’s luck and struck gold.

The queues outside and the desperate scramble for seats inside Assembly’s packed Rainy Hall should have been enough to convey that Doris and her friends are already becoming the runaway hit of this year’s Fringe.

The idea is fairly simple – a dramatic and musical retelling of what the “stars” are like backstage, based on the experiences of their dressing rooms assistants. The dialogue is well written and delivered with great vitality by the three actors, while the harmonies in the group numbers are just exquisite. The plot is basic, but I don’t think anybody came for that.

For me, Gail Watson is absolutely the star of this show. To be able to pull off one impression with such style is hard enough, but she embodied Doris Day, Dolly Parton, and a wonderfully bitchy Julie Andrews. I honestly couldn’t tell you which was my favourite, but when Dolly sang I Will Always Love You at the end of the show I genuinely thought I was watching the real deal – it was superb. Watson is charismatic, emotive and a simply stunning singer, and I predict a very exciting future for her.

Perhaps the most surprisingly impressive turn of the night was Frances Thorburn as Joel Grey, as he appeared in Cabaret. Her (his) mannerisms were impeccably refined and she more than capably held her own in the duet, Money Makes the World Go Around. Her performance of Somewhere Over The Rainbow was also mesmerising, capturing every nuance of the original.

We’ve all seen the divas’ on-screen and on-stage personas. This show delivered the rip-roaring numbers, tantrums and idiosyncrasies that we all love, but also very moving glimpses into their backstage lives, their families and insecurities. In what managed to be a fantastically glitzy, giggly and gritty affair, this is, without doubt, the show I have been waiting for to blow me away. Wow, wow, WOW!

I’m notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to my five stars, but I have no choice than to throw them all at this spectacular performance.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin  (Seen 10 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED