BritishTheatre.com reviewer Julian Eaves talks about his theatre highlights of 2018.
Once again, musical theatre throws up some of the greatest surprises and I’m thrilled now to recall some stonking highlights over the past year, with some timely reflections upon why the quality of new work is so variable.
In March, ‘Crazytown: The World of Ryan Scott Oliver‘, at The Other Palace Studio, directed by Adam Lenson, with musical direction by Joe Bunker and RSO himself on hand to sing and play with the band was lush and wonderful. Incredibly, this was only given for a single evening, and it is undoubtedly one of the best musical events to have appeared in this country all year. Why, when so many inferior works get bigger and longer productions – when they plainly do not merit them – does a writer of such genius languish in a nearly forgotten corner? There is no sense in this world. Nonetheless, the supply of dross kept on coming, and I had to waste evening after evening sitting through shows that should never (and I mean, really… never!) have been shown the light and sound of a full production. Why do people continue to throw good money after bad in this way? It beggars belief. Meanwhile, quality remains neglected. There is something wrong here. I’m actually forced to wonder whether Theresa May has something to do with the funding of new shows. Read Julian’s review of Crazytown.
It was not until July that things really improved when an unexpected release of slightly more ‘affordable’ tickets meant that I got to see, ‘Heathers‘, also at The Other Palace, before its well-deserved mooch into the West End. It fully merited the attention lavished upon it by producers Bill Kenwright and Paul Taylor-Mills (erstwhile eminence of TOP), and drew into the theatre its own tribe of devoted fans, creating a delightful buzz in the Haymarket. A pleasing mixture of the styles of ‘Legally Blonde’ and ‘Batboy’ (darker than the first, lighter than the second), its creators, music, lyrics and book (based on the 1980’s movie) by Kevin Murphy and Lawrence O’Keefe, are more Americans coming up with the goods.
On the other side of the summer, September brought yet another US product, Clare Barron’s ‘Dance Nation‘ to the Almeida. While not exactly a musical, it had enough music and dancing in it to quality for the title ‘play with music’, perhaps, and a really superb play it was, too. You could be wonderful where all the British talent was. The answer to that question quickly emerged: taking what was originally conceived as a dance show, and going a whole way further into a nearly totally through-composed musical drama, what we got was ‘Sylvia‘ at The Old Vic: a magnificent first look at what is being developed into possibly the British answer to ‘Hamilton’. I was lucky enough to see the production twice, and I wish more reviewers had done so, too: they might then have been more understanding in their judgements of the utterly remarkable creation by choreographer-director-writer-lyricist Kate Prince (and co-writer Priya Parmar) and her Zoo Nation regulars, composers Josh Cohen and DJ Walde. The show’s score is total bliss, seizing the Pankhurst suffragettes and dragging them kicking and bopping into the here and now, in a dramatic framework that breaks new ground in virtually every department: the electric quality of Prince’s fusion of direction and choreography reminds you of the talent of Jerome Robbins.
The month ended with arguably the stagiest West End first night I have yet attended: Marianne Elliott’s extraordinary re-working of the 1970 Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s show, ‘Company’, packed full of wonderful things, if also straining with more than the occasional weird awkwardness. When all the ingredients come together, it’s superb, and an important indicator that musical theatre, too, must be completely open to frank and vigorous re-imagining for successive generations. Her direction of the ‘book scenes’ in the show is undoubtedly the finest I have seen on the musical theatre stage in a good long while, perhaps the best ever: if there was ever anyone who takes musical theatre seriously as an art form, then it is Elliott. She sets the bar high. Book now for Company
Into autumn, and November brought us Rob Rokicki to the ever-necessary The Other Palace, with a sizzling programme – and, yes, another one-off single-night performance – of his grand project, ‘Monster Songs‘. This event places Rokicki in the forefront of great talents working in musical theatre, and please let someone take this up and do something amazing with it: it’s such a fine concept and a brilliantly written collection of songs.
And then, ‘Caroline, Or Change‘, arrived in the West End: the Jeanine Tesori score is simply heavenly – a breath-taking rolling pastiche of 40s, 50s and 60s pop songs, gospel and folk, each merging effortlessly and totally naturally into the next, giving voice to and providing the moving soundtrack to the ordinary lives of Tony Kushner’s unremarkable characters, elevating them into a magically epic-expressionist level. Nothing could stop the glorious score from working wonders; although, the production, for me, missed out on the essential character of the music and text on nearly every level – only the three backing singers actually seemed to inhabit the same universe (and gloriously) as the music they were required to sing. No matter: all you had to do was shut your eyes, and you were transported into paradise. Book Now for Caroline, Or Change
And lastly, at Above The Stag, a perfectly put together revival of Joanne Bogart and Eric Rockwell’s, ‘The Musical of Musicals‘, staged by Robert McWhir with choreography by Carole Todd, provided more laughs than all of the above put together, which is a big achievement for such a little show in a small studio space. Overall, it was another year dominated by high-quality American writing, with the signal achievement of one really stand-out show by British writers: there is a huge amount of quality in the production and performance side of things over here, but the US still leads the way in the standard of book and score creation. There is also weaker work coming out of the States, and lord knows we had to sit through enough of it this year, but the pay off remains in the mass of really good work by writers who have not only ability but also something interesting to say.