Frothy and Fabulous – Hairspray arrives in Birmingham

Big, bold, bright and beautiful and that could just be describing the leading lady Tracey Turnblad, Hairspray arrived in suitably glittering style at the Birmingham Hippodrome last night. The musical, which mixes the fun and frolics of the Corny Collins show, with the dark undercurrents of racial inequality in 1960s Baltimore, received a standing ovation from an ecstatic audience who had been thoroughly entertained. As the final song exclaims, you really can’t stop the beat. Last night, Birmingham couldn’t stop the beat!

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Tracey Turnblad is a big girl growing up in 1960s Baltimore, but that doesn’t stop her being confident, cool and full of ambitions. She wants to be the newest dancer on the Corny Collins show and wants to win the man of her dreams, teen hunk Link Larkin. Whilst spending time in detention (again) she forms a friendship with black teenager Seaweed and his friends, a group she had seen on the Corny Collins show during ‘Negro Day’. They teach her their style of dancing (the Peyton Place) and she soon catches the eye of both Corny Collins and her beloved Link, but buoyed by her loving and supportive parents Edna and Wilbur, and Seaweed’s mother, Motormouth Maybelle, her dreams start to shift to something more serious and important, racial integration on the Corny Collins show. It is a serious message of ugly times, hidden in the froth and fun of the brightest musical around.

The whole ensemble cast is faultless, there is not a wrong move, with exceptional singing and dancing, comedic episodes and moments of real pathos. But there are still standouts even within the perfection. The brilliant Rebecca Mendoza, in her stage debut,  was born to play Tracey, she is a ball of energy and enthusiasm who literally lights up the stage – you are always waiting for her to return to the stage when she is not there.  Her partner in crime is the hilarious Annalise Liard-Bailey as Penny Pingleton, all sweetness and dipsy one liners.  Teen Dream support is also offered by Layton Williams and Edward Chitticks as Seaweed and Link, both showing great singing talent and skilled dance moves. Layton Williams in particular, is a polished and charismatic performer, another stand out in a cast at the top of its game.

As Edna and Wilbur, Matt Rixon and Norman Pace are wonderful, their sense of comedic timing only matched by the warmth and charm of their performances. Gina Murray hams up a storm as the manipulative Velma Von Tussle, having great fun in her villainous role, while Brenda Edwards (Motormouth Maybelle) manages to just about bring the house down with her emotional, passionate performance of ‘I know where I’ve been’. All in all, the perfect cast performing the perfect feel good musical.

With costumes to die for, infectious, retro sounding songs that you feel like you’ve heard before, and a live band on stage providing the icing on the cake, Hairspray is a fabulous treat you should definitely indulge in this Autumn.As those dark nights draw in, Hairspray brings a riot of sparkle and colour. Go see!

Hairspray

 

Tuesday 10th – Saturday 14th October, Birmingham Hippodrome.

Click here for ticket information

 

Billy Elliot – Just Brilliant!

Growing up in Durham during 1984/85, as the Miners strike was at its height was difficult for anyone. But for a motherless 12 year old boy who longs to be a ballet dancer, despite being pushed towards a boxing ring, life is damn near unbearable. Dad and brother are on strike, caught up in the terrible times they are living in, but not too caught up to not react with anger and horror when they discover the boy’s secret. This is the story of Billy Elliot, which left me open mouthed with awe at the Birmingham Hippodrome last night. It is, quite frankly, the best musical I have ever seen – a masterpiece.

The scene is set right from the opening, as the Durham miners get the news they are on strike. It is immediately clear that this is no ordinary musical, it is hard hitting and real, with characters, including the children, who can swear like troupers and are volatile in their anger. Early dance sequences juxtapose the awkward innocence of the young ballet dancers, with the violent clashes between the miners and the police as the strike escalates and the violence and tensions increase. And yet this malevolent atmosphere is always tempered by real humour, whether it be Billy’s nan putting up two fingers to the world, Billy’s best friend Michael introducing him to cross dressing, or the brilliance of the scenes where Mrs Wilkinson tries in vain to get the mini ballerina’s to dance with grace, even as they grimace and gurn. She knows they will never trouble Dame Margot Fonteyn, but goes on, all the same, collecting those 50ps and barking instructions through a haze of cigarette smoke. It is a a majestic performance from Annette McLaughlin, more acerbic than Julie Walters in the film version, but still filled with heart.

It was fitting for the press night that Billy was played by an enormously talented local lad, Lewis Smallman from my home town of West Bromwich. He is perfection, his Billy is loveable and capable, in the scene where he reads the letter from his mom, of breaking your heart (my tears flowed freely). This is no saccharine performance, Billy is real, and is the soft heart of the story, which is why it is shocking when he responds to another child with violence. Lewis carries off all the dancing with aplomb and with his faultless accent, and tender scenes with Grandma ( a brilliant Andrea Miller) and best friend Michael, he shows he is a real find and star.

He is ably supported by a superb cast. Martin Walsh plays his dad, first as an oafish character, but he brings so much pathos to the role,  particularly when he tries to go back to work to get the bus fare for Billy to get to London. Scott Garnham also gains our sympathy as brother Tony, his future looks bleak and the audience can totally feel his pain. Another standout is Leo Atkin as the hilarious George, quick with one liners as he tries to push Billy and Michael into boxing, whilst Daniel Page delights as the larger than life Mr Braithwaite, surprisingly light on his feet in a Fame t-shirt.

As you would expect from a musical with songs from the pen of Elton John, the songs are exceptional, with highlights being Grandma’s bittersweet torch song ‘Grandma’s Song’ , the heartbreaking ‘The Letter’ and the Dante’s Inferno style staging of ‘Angry Dance’, complete with smoke and red skies. It is also a stunning moment when Billy dances with his older self in Swan Lake, a stunning turn from Luke Cinque-White.

Billy Elliot has been called the greatest British Musical of all. Who am I to disagree?

Billy Elliot

Thu 9 Mar – Sat 29 Apr

Click here for ticket information.

 

Chicago turns up the heat at the New Alex Theatre

I should first of all put a disclaimer with this review. Chicago is my favourite musical of them all. It is sassy and sexy, filled with a dangerous jazz Age glamour. A mixture of a speakeasy floor show and a Busby Berkeley style musical, bursting with unforgettable characters. Last night in Birmingham, a knockout cast  filled the New Alex Theatre with verve and magnetism and literally brought the house down. My only question is ‘can I go again?’

Chicago is the story of two 1920s murderesses. It’s the height of the jazz age, when anyone can become a star, and the prohibition restraints lead to gin joints, chorus girls and speakeasy’s, with an air of illicit sex and alcohol. The slinky Velma Kelly is the current queen of the Cook County jail after the double slaying of her sister and husband after she caught them ‘en flagrante’. Velma is destined to be a star, sure to be acquitted by the skills of her silky lawyer Billy Flynn, and with the William Morris agency on the phone according to Prison head Mama Morton. But the arrival of the sassy Roxie Hart throws all this into disarray, as Roxie, who murdered her lover, proceeds to steal Velma’s thunder, her headlines and her trial date. But the problem with making your name through murder is that there is always another, more sensational crime around the corner.

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In the leading roles as Roxie and Velma, it would be hard to find any fault with Hayley Tamaddon and Sophie Carmen Jones. Hayley is sparky and vibrant, a pocket rocket who is the very definition of a wisecracking broad, and her musical numbers resound with wit, particularly when she takes the part of a ventriloquists dummy in ‘We both reached for the Gun’.  As Velma, Sophie is a slinky, glamorous present, and opens the proceedings in blistering style with the iconic ‘All that Jazz’. Her dance skills are fully employed throughout, particularly in the scene where she shows Billy how she will appeal to the jury at her trial.

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Billy Flynn needs to be the embodiment of style and charisma, part matinee idol, part vaudeville showman, and the wonderful John Partridge is incredible in the role. He plays it very cool emotionally, singing ‘All I care about is love’ but showing it’s the dollar he really loves. A powerful singing voice and real stage presence make John the perfect Billy, this role was made for him.

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Mica Paris is also very good as Mama Morton, her amazing vocal range totally owning ‘When you’re good to mama’, and her forceful personality also shines through, you really like Mama, even though she is totally on the make, whatever she might say to ‘her girls’. Similarly, the audience totally loves Amos Hart, the Mr Cellophane who is used and ignored by just about everyone. Neil Ditt makes what could have been a pathetic character into one filled with pathos – the only really decent person in the whole damn thing.

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Chicago is full of amazing musical numbers, many of which I have already mentioned, but the stand out, tour de force, is the sublime ‘Cell Block Tango’ sang by the six murderesses of Cook County as they explain how they came to be in prison. With lines like ‘he walked onto my knife, he walked onto it six times’, the darkly funny side of Chicago is explained, and combined with the dark set, the full band on stage again setting the scene as a floorshow, and the skimpy black costumes worn by both male and female characters, undermining at all times that this is a show about sex and murder.

It is also unmissable. Go see.

Chicago The Musical, New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham

Monday 12th to Saturday 31st December 2016