Last Updated on 29th October 2016
Charing Cross Theatre
If ‘Titanic’ was a splendid West End debut for new production combo, Capital Musicals Limited (directors, Danielle Tarento, Steven M. Levy, Sean Sweeney and Vaughan Williams), then this is a massively confident statement that they are rapidly becoming the equal of any of the leading producers in the West End. Visually, and musically, this is one of the grandest spectacles in town. The brilliant production by Thom Southerland fills the stage with 20 or so of the best actor-musicians in the country, all under the onstage genius direction of rising star MD, Jordan Li-Smith, creating a symphonic sweep of sound with colours from Tam-Tam to glockenspiel in Mark Aspinall’s wonderfully varied and evocative orchestrations (Aspinall also supervises). Two upright pianos on trucks waltz around the stage – like the elevated galleries to left and right that swing in towards centre stage, manhandled by the cast – and on one of them rides Li-Smith, conducting from the keyboard, with not a note of printed music in sight for anyone: and with more than two hours of music to play, these musicians have learnt all their parts by heart. It is a phenomenal achievement.
The design by Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher unifies the three strands of the narrative in turn-of-the-last-century New York City, by making it as easy as possible for Southerland to move between three main groups of American society with the minimum of fuss and often at terrific speed. The illumination by Howard Hudson pulls it all together, with lots of cross-lighting emphasising depth of perspective. And the sound by Andrew Johnson has Mahlerian fury as well as music box delicacy in it. The costumes are by Tarento regular, Jonathan Lipman, who produces smartness and elegance for New Rochelle, and more grittiness and distress for black Harlem, and the Eastern European immigrants. The tightly detailed choreography is by the nifty Ewan Jones, who moves about an often relatively large cast for this petite space with masterful ease and humour.
In terms of the story, this is also about the hardest hitting thing we have seen. In fact, this grimly powerful production is already being asked for on Broadway. And no wonder. The great strengths – and failings – of America are laid bare here, in Terrence McNally’s superb script based on E. L. Doctorow’s novel of the same name, and extensively musicalised by Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty at their very best. The end of the first act, for instance, is one of the most disturbing things I’ve experienced in the musical theatre. The group of Americans I sat next to in the audience found it overwhelming, and its many contemporary resonances astonishingly apt. The show has been seen in London several times recently, and it is clearly a work that repays revisitation, and reinterpretation. I will certainly be back to see this version again.
The cast: Simon Anthony (a memorable Willie Conklin); Bernadette Isatu Bangura (a compelling debut as Brigit); Anthony Cable (dignified and wise as Grandfather and J.P.Morgan); Earl Carpenter (oozing West End polish as Father); Anita Louise Combe (in splendidly moving voice as Mother, carrying the show’s emotional heart in ‘We Can Never Go Back To Before’); Valerie Cutko (as always, totally convincing as Emma Goldman); Christopher Dickins (bringing matinee idol good looks to Harry Houdini – and using the cross-straps of his accordion as part of his disguise); Nolan Frederick (determined and noble as Booker T. Washington); Tom Giles (brisk as Henry Ford); Joanna Hickman (surprisingly touching and ‘real’ as the girl-on-the-swing, Evelyn Nesbitt); Lemuel Knights (always useful in the ensemble); Martin Ludenbach (the same); James Mack (convincingly serious as Harry K. Thaw); Sufia Manya (ensemble); Ako Mitchell (charismatic and tragic as Coalhouse Walker Jr.); Seyi Omooba (telling as Sarah’s friend); Kate Robson Stuart (bright and energetic as Kathleen); Jess Ryan (ensemble); Jennifer Saayeng (controlled and credible as the tragic Sarah); Jonathan Stewart (mercurial as Younger Brother); Gary Tushaw (making much of the economically written Tateh); Alana Hinge (totally in command of the stage as Little Girl); Samuel Peterson (equally confident as Little Boy) ; Ethan Quinn (as immediately above); Riya Vyas (and again).
The real miracle of this piece, though, is surely the phenomenally sure-footed and clear-sighted direction by Southerland. His ascent as a genius of the theatre shows no sign of slowing down, and every indication that it is picking up pace. You may as well enjoy his work now, because the call from Broadway will not be long in coming (always supposing it has not been ringing in his ears for some time). For him, this season at the Charing Cross Theatre – ‘Titanic’, ‘Ragtime’, ‘Death Takes A Holiday’ – represents a coming-of-age: years of work in directing musicals pays off with a run of productions of breath-taking attention-to-detail, truthfulness, immediacy and beauty. The run of ‘Titanic’ was extended; I’d say it is odds-on that something similar will happen to ‘Ragtime’; and, then?…. A great artist like him is not going to hang around waiting to see what happens. He’ll be out carving out his way through the wonderful repertoire of musical theatre, making wonders happen.