7th June 2017
Concept musicals aren’t exactly thick on the ground these days, yet there was a time when they were considered the way forward as the most interesting sub-genre of musical theatre. Now, we get a chance to see – in a fine, typically well prepared and beautifully presented production – an until now forgotten example of the type, happily gracing the large space at this Parnassus of MT. In fact, this is indeed the European Premiere of a hitherto ‘lost work’. And I’m delighted to report that it’s in very good shape.
So, what’s the ‘concept’? A vast tome of reportage by the American writer (and national phenomenon) Studs Terkel, which also rejoices in the title of this work, was used way back in the 70’s as the source material for a stage adaptation by no less a figure than Stephen Schwartz (whom we saw, only a year or so ago, hanging around the foyer of this very theatre) – in collaboration with Nina Faso. And with additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg. It’s a sequence of monologues, much in the manner of Mayhew, in which good old plain workin’ folk get to chat about their day, their duties, their lives and their dreams. And they sing and dance their way through a whole bunch of numbers by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead, Schwartz himself and the great, the legendary, James Taylor. Oh, and it was heavily revised a few years ago, acquiring some more up-to-date numbers by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The numbers are all well written, though some are much more effective than others.
The cast putting all this over is made up of half a dozen established performers, and in this production at any rate, the same number of Absolute Beginners: all fresh graduates of the leading stage schools in the country, and making an almighty splash with this, their pro debut! The old hands include the breath-takingly wonderful Krysten Cummings – I think perhaps the only native American in the cast – and one who more than anyone gets ‘inside’ the truth of what she is saying, and not just verbally either, I mean physically in every toss of the head or flick of the hand, in the angle of her hips or the point of her toes: it is as complete and as compelling a performance in musical theatre as you are ever likely to see. Her rendition of ‘Just A Housewife’ comes as close as the form ever gets to pure poetry: she gives the character all the power and emotional depth of a figure from a Lied by Schubert, making Carnelia’s simple tune devastatingly profound.
Maybe not all the other characters get material that is as strongly written as that, but they give beautiful performances. Peter Polycarpou is in magnificent voice, and sensitively alive to every beat and tick of his characters with a small number of words and a great big heart and soul. Watching – and listening to – him is like seeing an Ordinary Joe get added onto the rock faces of Mount Rushmore. Siubhan Harrison has comparable success with her characters, as does the beautifully warm-voiced Liam Tamne. Oh, and did I say something about this one of the FEW truthfully representative examples of diverse casting in town? Never mind only on the musical theatre stage, either: in any form. Here we see the world that really exists!
Thanks, and more, for this go to the big team of producers (Jack Maple, Ramin Sabi, Christopher Ketner & D.E.M. Productions), and the genius director, Luke Sheppard, who, with his nifty choreographer Fabian Aloise (assisted by Hollie Taylor), and AD Leigh Toney, bring the catalogue of elements in this show, this panopticon of modern urban life, smoothly to the stage. Jean Chan has created a fairly realistic set, grimy and edgy (very Southwark Playhouse), and Gabriella Slade triumphs with costumes that have the same monumental feel of decades of use and hard wear: people sport shirts that look like the buildings do, and so on. It’s a telling effect. It’s all lit without pretension by Nic Farman, and sound design is lucid and well balanced thanks so Tom Marshall.
You may have preferences for age or youth, but whether you go for any of the older stalwarts (also featuring Gillian Bevan, elegant and wise; Dean Chisnall – honey-voiced and with a nice line in comedy); or with the new kids on this block (Patrick Coulter, Nicola Espallardo, Izuka Hoyle, Luke Latchman, Huon Mackley or Kerri Norville), you will find them all getting the job done. The show runs about 90 minutes (or so), without a break, and the band (musical supervision by Alex Parker, and musical direction by Isaac McCullough) sounds terrific. It may be slightly open to question whether the ‘concept’ is really quite as clear and reliable a guide through the hour and a half of the running time as you might wish; it may cross your mind that this is, in fact, much more of a themed ‘revue’ on the subject of ‘work’, as it is anything else; you might even wish there were just a bit more substances knitted into the tight squeezes between terrific musical numbers (and it IS the habit of British audiences to demand just that!). Be all that as it may. You’re going to love the songs. You will remember many of them – and with affection. And what work is better than what you can recall with a smile in the great hereafter?
Until 8 July