35MM A Musical Exhibition
The Other Palace Studio,
21st September 2017
Ever since Modest Mussorgsky's piano first took a stroll amongst Viktor Hartmann's pictures at an exhibition in 1874 commemorating the painter's career at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, the visual arts have exerted a powerful influence over musicians of all kinds. In 1922, Ravel made his famous orchestral arrangement of that work. More recently, Emerson, Lake and Palmer revisited Mussorgsky and adapted his music for their band's style. And the concept has spawned many fascinating successors. For instance, only last year, the St James's Theatre presented the ground-breaking, ‘Exposure: Life through a lens', a musical interpretation of a series of photographs taken by an imaginary photographer. It is fitting that in its rebranded form, The Other Palace presents this piece, where the photographs of the very real Matthew Murphy are given musical expression through the songs of an American writer we are just discovering over here, the hugely talented Ryan Scott Oliver.
Thanks to the endeavours of an exciting new producer, the quietly unassuming Craig Nom Chong, we have a dream team to present this work. Director Adam Lenson is here to work his magic with a piece that pushes ahead into new and magnificent musical theatre territory; he moves and choreographs the ensemble with delicious eloquence, transforming the small Studio platform into a grand arena, easily conveying the sweep and scale of the New York projected onto the wall behind the action, designer Justin Williams' (aided and abetted by Johnny Rust) simple but evocative urban slabs. Sam Waddington is here to light it all with his trademark skill, and Huw Williams expertly manages the sound. And what sound! Joe Bunker marshals a big ensemble – the largest I've yet heard in this space – of keys (himself), strings (Sophie Goode and Dominic Veall), guitars (Luke Thornton), bass (Doug Grannell), drums and percussion (Nathan Gregory or Gareth Thompson) to deliver a stunning performance of this thrilling score.
But it is to this Class A cast that the production properly belongs. Maisey Bawden is here again, taking another confident step forward in her splendid career, her voice growing magisterially as the event progresses, encompassing the not inconsiderable demands of the music with ease and relish. It is also high time that we welcomed back the darling personality of Christina Modestou, who is on even finer form than when I last saw her in Rent at this theatreand on tour. The comparison is instructive, because this, too, is a kind of song-cycle, and the artistry needed to convey stories where there are only songs to tell them does require a particular set of skills; luckily this cast are perfectly schooled in them. The male roles boast the nicely contrasting presences of three more experts. Newcomer Gregor Duncan, fresh out of Mountview, is full of youthful and rather innocent vitality. The now bearded and slightly more worldly Samuel Thomas is also here, his authority belies the fact that he graduated from the same school but one year ago. And, the most experienced of the squad, the bearded and long-haired George Macguire, bringing rock'n'roll credits from his award-winning background in ‘Sunny Afternoon', ‘Hair', ‘Fame', ‘Quadrophenia', and many more. The balance achieved by this terrific ensemble is remarkable, not least in their exquisite a capella moments.
There are sixteen numbers here, hinged to sixteen different images from Mr Murphy. The score does not just reflects them, however, but much more ingeniously it also reflects the conventional tropes and gestures of musical theatre. Thus, the first number, ‘Stop Time', is a fairly recognisable ‘opening number', where the whole cast appear and introduce the ‘theme' of the show, how photographs ‘capture' a moment in time, and invite us to dwell upon it and consider its implications. But already within this movement, we notice the rhythmical inventiveness of the composer, switching pulses around, alternating boldly contrasting sections with each other in a way that makes us associate him with writers like Sondheim and Bernstein. In tandem with this, the musical contours emanating from the band also change, evolve, embracing different voicings, timbres, colours, in a way that announces we are going to get a whole lot more than just illustration. The journey we are on is a musical one. Oliver, a composer of the highest order, is taking us into practically symphonic terrain, where we had better have our wits about us. The landscape is complex and varied and we must remain alert to catch its twists and turns, because the musical outpouring doesn't stand still for long. Restlessly, and delightfully, we move from one mood to another, from Broadway to the chamber recital, from prog-rock to minimalist art-house happening, and much more. Few writers in this genre are this eclectic, and as masterful.
Anyone familiar with the ‘concept albums' of rock musicians will know what I'm talking about, and they will feel immediately at home with what the show is about. Just as the present owner of the theatre in which this production plays, Andrew Lloyd Webber, began his career in musical theatre by launching shows – ‘Jesus Christ Superstar', ‘Evita'… – in this format, so too does Oliver continue the tradition of the concept-based collection of musical numbers. Some people may not see the line of continuity here, but I do, and I feel sure most audiences will. After all, there have been other song-cycle based presentations recently in this house: ‘Songs For A New World'; ‘Pure Imagination'; ‘The Last Five Years'; ‘Some Lovers' and – possibly the most persuasive of them all – ‘An Evening of Music From The Creators of ‘Spring Awakening', Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater'. I've enjoyed these enormously, and welcome another representative of the form with open arms.
The show is playing until just 30th September, so do not delay if you want to catch this gorgeous piece. Not only that, there is an after-programme of celebrity spots by upcoming musical theatre writers: on the evening I attended, we were treated to a showcase of the marvellous songs of Tim Connor. Sublime. Meanwhile, another of Mr Oliver's works ‘We Foxes: A Southern Gothic Musical Thriller' may be heard in London in the not too distant future.
Photography: Nick Brittain Photography