“Our House”, Sutton Coldfield Musical Theatre, Lichfield Garrick

madness

I saw Madness play live twice. They were fabulous, raucous, and with a touch of Music Hall about them. I am also a veteran of the era when they formed. Their incubation was not seamless. They morphed from what might best be described euphemistically as a “lad” band, through innovative interpretations of traditional Ska and  Two Tone , to a band whose lyrics were known verbatim by junior school age children. That trans- generational travel has served their longevity well. Their milieu is the three minute pop song, accessible lyrics, ubiquitous subject matter, and vocalist Suggs’ deadpan delivery. All of which does not necessarily equate with a hit musical, so I approached the night with an ear expectant of familiar songs, and an eye curious as to what I would see.

 

SCMTC are good at this sort of production, big dance numbers have always been their strength, and with a thirty plus cast, they can handle what is needed. Great singing is not a requirement to sing Madness songs, attitude and enthusiasm is. Fortunately, you will never find this company lacking in that department. The winner of an Olivier Award, “Our House “ was written by Tim Firth, who also wrote “Calendar Girls”, and was first performed in 2002. It tells the story of Joe Casey ( Matt Branson) who, on the night of his sixteenth birthday, commits a petty crime in a bid to impress the girl of his dreams, Sarah (Sophie Hammond). When the police arrive he faces a life changing decision; does he stay and own up like an honest man, or make his escape and go on the run? The opportunity to perform the Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go ?” is surely missed here. Unfortunately, Branson is miscast, looking both too old, and awkward in the part. His love/lust affair with Sarah never convinces.

our house ensemble

 

Joe’s world splits in two, and, in a “sliding doors” moment, two very different paths unfold before him. Whilst offering dramatic possibility, particularly when there are two “Joes” on stage, the narrative can feel a little muddled, as we are offered two very different outcomes for Joe, depending on which decision he had taken. Themes explored include love, family values, growing up, responsibility and dealing with losing the people that shape us, throwing a bit of “Blood Brothers” into the “Sliding Doors” mix.

 

Ben Addams enjoys playing villain Reecey. Mark Skett is convincing as Joe’s Dad, a part played by Suggs for a time in the original stage show.his performance of “One Better Day” being the solo highlight of the night. Elisa Gorle ( Angie), Chloe Child (Billie) Adam Coulthard (Lewis) and Anil Patel ( Emmo) provide welcome comic relief as  two comic double acts. The big production numbers are well handled by choreographer Maggie Jackson, she imaginatively incorporates a “42nd Street” interlude into the middle of a stretched out “Embarrassment” by introducing a female chorus line, sequins and all. Musical Director Sheila Pearson produces an authentic period sound, whilst still offering musical theatre production values. Saxophonist Jen Pollock will have gone home exhausted.

 

our house car

You will never guess which song this set introduced…

 

 

A greatest hits medley  opens  an instrumental overture  before kicking into a storming “Our House”, and from there the musical fun never really stops. Unfortunately the narrative never really gets off the ground. All the songs were written by the band, with the exception of Labbi Siffre’s, “It Must Be Love”. “Tomorrow’s Just Another Day” and “One Better Day” are great, superbly crafted, songs, even if at the time of release they were not the best sellers. English, laconic and wry, they are strong counter-points to the obvious rabble rousers “Our House” “Baggy Trousers and “Embarrassment”. When in doubt, “Our House” appears again to keep things moving musically.

 

There are some issues with the production. Vocal cues were routinely missed, some of the chorus harmonies were off key, “NW5” was so dreary that even the cast started to read newspapers, a coffin which appeared at the end of the show probably contained the libretto, and the set piece dance number around “Sun and the Rain” had the dancers in long loose fitting trousers, masking some well drilled dance moves, in a bizarre, ill-conceived routine. Costuming was anachronistic and inconsistent. I also wondered whether the Director had ever seen Madness live or watched a live recording. The majestic “Night Boat to Cairo” was emasculated into an “It Aint Half Hot Mum” pastiche. the eponymous call to arms being uttered with all the confidence of a year seven child asking a sixth former where the toilets were on their first day in Big School. it cried out for the saxophonist to perform from the balcony in full view, instead she was hidden in the pit. Equally, for the finale of “One Step Beyond”, the “Hey You-, don’t watch that watch this…” intro was ditched, robbing it of its build up.

 

The main problems with the show goes beyond any production. Madness songs require a central focussed narrative. When the vocal duties are shared out, the strength of the songs drains out.

But  the songs and singing were rousing, nostalgic and entertaining , once the cues had ben picked up. No fan of Madness, or anyone who listened to the radio in the 1980’s, will leave the auditorium disappointed. But it is the songs that carry the night, with Director Faye Easto doing a valiant job at driving a libretto which often has a tangential relationship with the music. The show is still a bit of a mess, despite the Company’s best efforts and it is not difficult to see why the West End run did not complete twelve months.  Fortunately, the finale is just for fun with the Company blasting through “One Step Beyond” and the other best bits with conviction and commitment, brio and elan, but it was too little, too late to save the show. Runs till 21st October.

 

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Hairspray – Birmingham Hippodrome

Hairspray-400x400 poster
*****
This show is beguilingly deceptive. Its title implies froth and artificial glamour, yet when heated, hairspray can be explosive. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s adaptation of John Waters’ 1988 film for stage was itself based on the book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. First appearing on Broadway in 2002, it is both glitzy and gutsy. Stage adaptations of films have a chequered history, this is a rarity, an incarnation which is more powerful on the boards than on the screen.

 
There is a political message. That can be good in offering substance to a show, but it can also date it. Fortunately, and sadly, the themes of casual racism and mistrust of immigrants were a feature of the Brexit debate, and legislature corruption dominated the US Presidential Trump v Clinton battle, offering a contemporary dimension to the original screenplay. “Hairspray” focusses on the integration debate in early 1960’s America, body image, and how outsiders fit into mainstream society. But this is no dour, didactic dirge. Instead it is a celebration of diversity, hope, and the talent of youth .

 
Resident Director and choreographer Lindsay McAllister has managed to successfully tiptoe along the tightrope of delivering a show which musically fairly fizzles with high octane effervescence, whilst retaining the integrity of playing out a dramatization of the Civil Rights struggle in America. A brash, clever set nicely reflects the time and place. Takis earns his corn as set and costume designer, producing a riot of colour and flared dresses. The costumes are as much a star of the show as the actors boasting an operatic look, a cut above simple sixties kitsch

 
Rebecca Mendoza, taking the lead role of Tracy Turnblad, blazed into the opening number “Good Morning Baltimore”, and never looked back. It was as if she, and the cast had plugged themselves into the mains electricity socket. This role is her professional debut and Rebecca is superb in the role, offering a powerful vocal and a commanding stage presence. Yet she isn’t all front. Her love interest with Link Larkin is nuanced and believable, helped considerably by Edward Chitticks’ assured vocals and charisma.
Gina Murray, as producer and scheming mother Velma Von Tussell, comes close to stealing the show. She specialises in a withering glare that could turn milk sour, ostentatiously enjoying her role as villain of the show, injecting a healthy dose of Cruella De Ville into her character.

 
The musical score is fabulous featuring 1960s-style dance music and “downtown” rhythm and blues, played by a live onstage band under the musical direction of Ben Atkinson. Not skimping on musicians by using a pre- recorded sound track makes such a difference. All the vocalists, without exception, rose to the occasion, none more so than Miss Motormouth (Brenda Edwards) whose spoken rhyming couplets morphed into a huge interpretation of signature ballad “ I Know Where I’ve Been” sending tingle down the nape of my neck. She is a talent who has developed far beyond her X Factor appearances.

 
Tracy Turnblad’s parents have almost as much fun as the audience as a sparkling comedy duo. Norman Pace ( of Hale & Pace) gives a masterclass in timing and facial expression, while Matt Rixon appears in drag, breathing fresh life into the “man- in- a -dress” gag in a little and large pairing .Both come together for a very well received duet, “You’re Timeless to Me”.

 

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Norman Pace

 

 

 
A compelling part of this show’s success is McAllister’s choreography. There are no back line shirkers, the shapes, footwork and movement are a delight, and she shows commendable discipline in not flooding the stage with chorus unnecessarily. Inevitably, she works “You Can’t Stop the Beat” until it is wrung dry, and why not? It is a great song, with unusually satisfying lyrics, the performance of which demands, and receives, a deserved standing ovation at its close.

hairspray cstb

 
Delightful cameo’s abound. Layton Williams (Seaweed Stubbs) is a striking performer, as slender as a microphone stand, but with seemingly nuclear powered dancing energy playing opposite love interest, ugly duckling turned swan, Annalise Liard- Bailey ( Penny Pingleton) The two of them imbue their roles with comedy and poignancy. Little Inez (Monifa James) gives a big performance. Jon Tsourus entertains hugely as the oleaginous television host Corny Collins.

 
Amidst the infectious song and dance a witty, and occasionally risqué, script is brought to life by the cast with some great lines, my favourite being from Velma ;“ It pays to have a politician in your pocket and a polaroid in your safe”.

 
This is an exuberant slice of musical theatre, beautiful to look at, kind on the ear, and with a big smile on its face. Runs till Sat 14th Oct.

 
Gary Longden

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Tom Petty – an appreciation

 

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Thomas Earl Petty (October 20, 1950 – October 2, 2017)

 

The phenomena of public grief for public figures whom were not known personally to the mourner is not new, but often ridiculed.

Tom Petty was one of a handful who caused me to double take, and to feel, that just a little bit of my soul had been taken away.

Most eulogies tell of someone who was the greatest, the best. Curiously, Tom did not fall into that category. A very good songwriter, live performer, singer, band leader – but not the greatest.

I first became aware of him with the release of the first album, in November 1976, the eponymous Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers which is a traditional rock album. It contained diverse, well written, well- constructed, well played songs. In “American Girl” he had also written a song which would be their signature for an entire career. In Britain the highly influential Fluff Freeman radio show backed it for rock fans. All should have been good, but a big cloud gathered on the horizon, Punk. A British phenomena which stopped dinosaur rock acts in their tracks, and strangled traditional up and coming rock acts at birth.

In retrospect the solution was risible. For the second “You’re Gonna Get it” Album, released in May 78, the band wore biker jackets and shades on the cover and released the punk length, spiky, guitar driven “I Need to Know” as the single. The album was not as strong as the first, rushed to capitalise on the success of the first album, with only “Listen to Her Heart” enduring. But it worked. The trompe de l’oeil was pulled off. The single, and album, were a success, and was accepted by the all- powerful British music critics, they stayed the right side of the music press.

I saw them for the first time on June 24th 1978 at Knebworth supporting Genesis in front of a 100,000 fans. In retrospect it was an ostensibly monumental task for such a relatively young band, in practice it was easy. This was no fledgling band of wannabees washed up on the shore by the first wave of punk, instead a group of seasoned stage performers and practiced musicians. It was the biggest test of their careers to date- but one which they took in their stride.

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With only two albums behind them, the forty- five minute slot suited them down to the ground. They just played their strongest songs, stretched out “Breakdown” ,and Tom, in his top hat tried to look overwhelmed by the universal mid- afternoon acclaim at the end of the set. Their “stadium” credentials instantly established.

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Tom Petty, with top hat, at Knebworth

I next saw them on March 7th, 1980 on the “Damn the Torpedoes” tour. Despite management/ contractual wrangles, they had produced their strongest album yet, and the 3.487 capacity Hammersmith Odeon, with its 192ft wide stage, was perfect for them. The place was packed with their fans who knew all the songs, the capacity was big enough to produce a vibrant atmosphere, yet small enough to bottle it. They were sensational, opening with a swaggering, searing “Shadow of a Doubt” , and the mid set quintet of “Refugee/ Listen to her heart/ American Girl/ Breakdown and Too Much Ain’t enough” reaching heights that few artists can match.

The last time I saw him live was on Oct 17th, 1987 supporting, and playing with, Bob Dylan. Roger McGuinn opened the show, but Tom joined him on stage to play “Tambourine Man”. Then Tom and the Heartbreakers backed Dylan. Dylan was awful. Tom tried his best, but Dylan was sloppy, the rearrangements poor, and for once the band were probably grateful that they were not in the spotlight.

Although England broke the Heartbreakers, a fact that Tom happily acknowledged, despite his professed Anglophilia, he was not a regular visitor to our shores, leaving me, and others, to watch from afar, no less interested or supportive.

Through the Travelling Willbury’s, a solo period, and then back with the Heartbreakers for good, his trademark was strong songs, great live shows ( albeit Stateside!) and a regular output of interesting new material. Mike Campbell’s guitar and Benmont Tench’s keyboards were essential. They were to Tom, as Miami Steve and Roy Bittan are to Bruce Springsteen. The extra space that Benmont was offered for live performances was always welcome, how I adore his stretched out piano breaks.

The curious thing about Tom is that he is undoubtedly up there in the American Rock n Roll Pantheon with Springsteen, Dylan, Young and Buddy Holly. Yet was there a cross-over, defining album? A “Blood on the Tracks”, a “Born to Run” a “Harvest”. Probably not. And how many standards did he write? “American Girl”, and beyond that a plethora of fine songs for his fans, but not much that reached beyond. It bothers me, because when I listen to “It’s Good to be King”, “Refugee”, “Crawling Back to You” and “Woman in Love” I hear songs I love and admire, but whose currency was limited.

 

So if he was not the greatest, where did his greatness come from? I believe it was from his forensic knowledge of the history of guitar pop from Buddy Holly and the Beatles onwards, and his ability to synthesise that with his arrangements and voice. He was a typical American Southern conservative, generous, genuine but not too bothered about what was happening way beyond. That meant that when he was playing with the Travelling Wilbury’s and on all- star bills, he shone by not shining. He was the alchemist, the oil, the glue, for whom the sum total was always more important than the constituent parts. My favourite clip of him is when he is playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in an all star band tribute to George Harrison. Jeff Lynne harmonises, Steve Winwood plays keys, Prince steals the show with an outrageous magnificent guitar solo, Tom smiles, holding it all together.

If you have never really delved much into Tom’s work, I thoroughly recommend the four disc live anthology. It isn’t a greatest hits record, but a compilation of his best live performances over the years. You cannot fail to be impressed.

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And maybe, collectively, this all explains my sadness on learning of his death. It was not him personally. It was about owning every record he made on release, and realising that now there would be no more. It was about the distant figure with the top hat saluting the masses with his guitar at the end of his set at Knebworth, and the exhilaration and euphoria of his show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, memories now wrapped and sealed. It was about the four hour documentary “Runnin Down a Dream” (2007) which offered me the illusion that I “knew” him. It was about putting on one of his albums, any one of his albums, and smiling. It was about an American Great – who wasn’t, best summed up by these lyrics:

“There’s a southern accent, where I come from
The young ‘uns call it country, the yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talking, but everything gets done
With a southern accent, where I come from”

 

 

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Great Expectations – Derby Theatre

gem
One of Dickens’ latter works, his thirteenth novel, “Great Expectations” lends itself to a dramatic stage presentation. An atmospheric opening triggers a chain of events that will bring a young man riches, break his troubled heart, and lead him deep into a mire of deception and discovery. “Great Expectations” is a story about transformation, loss, forgiveness and home coming. Neil Bartlett’s stage adaptation is bold, strong and imaginative, the perfect partner to Dickens. Torches illuminate the stage as Pip seeks answers in the darkness, hidden behind concealed doors.

 

Barney George’s set is stunning, the lighting by Tim Skelly haunting and ethereal. Geoffrey Breton as Pip is enthralling. His unrequited love for Estella, beautifully realised by Kate Spencer, is particularly poignant, the consequences severe. But it is Polly Lister’s Miss Haversham who steals the show wrenching emotion, character and nuance out of every line in one of the most compelling interpretations of the role I have ever seen. She prowls, spider like on sticks, her frame seemingly swathed in decaying layers of web, bitter and acerbic. Robert Beck oozes menace as Magwitch, Jack Quarton has lots of fun as lawyer Mr Jaggers, one of my favourite Dickensian creations.

 

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Polly Lister is superb as Miss Haversham

 

 

As in “David Copperfield”, there is a first person narrative. The story is a bildungsroman which twists and turns into a dramatic finale, drenched in tension, the nine actors assuming multiple roles. Director Sarah Brigham wrenches the maximum out of an imposing set which is strong on impact, but unfussy and uncluttered in use, allowing the characters to shine. Her imaginative use of chairs is once again evident ( her parents must have forever been putting them back in place at home when she was a child!) be they gravestones or boats . Inset ponds are a particular feature of this production doubling both as marshes in Kent and the Thames in London.

 

Dickens aficionados will be satisfied with the faithful and authentic presentation of the tale, newcomers will find it instantly accessible, all cannot fail but be impressed by the consistently strong acting by all the cast and the coherence of vision displayed by Sarah Brigham’s staging.” Great Expectations” runs until Saturday 21st October.

 

Gary Longden

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Table Tipping – Long Eaton, with Pietro Politano

 

“It must be a trick – mustn’t it? A table moving of its own accord. It just is not possible.”

Those were my thoughts prior to attending a table tipping evening. So, when an opportunity to experience it for myself presented itself, it was a chance I could not miss. Spiritual Medium Pietro Politano was hosting the evening, I went along with my partner Jane Osborne , who specialises in Past Life Regressions.

 

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Pietro Politano , centre, with Stacey Deacon , left, Jane Osborne, right

 

It started at 7.30pm on a Saturday evening and was restricted to seventeen people to ensure that everyone could have a go themselves at least once. The crowd was mixed, young and old, men and women, Spiritualists and the casually curious. The table itself was an ordinary early 20th Century oak side table with barley twist legs exactly like the illustration. I inspected it myself. There were no motors or magnets, alterations or modifications.

Table

As soon as Pietro summonsed three people to help him on the table, at random, the table began to move. All four parties were touching the table lightly, finger tips only. It was possible that Pietro was manipulating the table with his fingers and palms as the table was light. It rocked, it rotated, it spun, it sped around the floor, seemingly of its own accord.

Then Pietro invited me to join him. On the table was myself, Pietro, and two random audience members. I was stood next to Pietro, so was very close. I could see no obvious signs of him manipulating the table. As my hands were also close to his, I pushed the table a little, it was not easy. The reason why I did it was to observe how my fingers visually responded to the exertion, and to compare them with Pietro’s. Pietro’s fingers showed no signs of the stress mine did, nor did his wrists show signs of stress if he had been using his palms. The table was moving at a very fast rate causing us to have to run to maintain finger contact.

Then theatrically he excused himself under the pretence of a toilet break, leaving us three, random audience members at the table – and it started again. Physical manipulation by Pietro was physically impossible.

As the table moved around the audience, sat in a semi- circle around the floor he occasionally delivered spiritual messages, prompted by the table. All were accepted by the recipients. And so this continued for the best part of ninety minutes with the table always moving, rocking, and rotating, but at different speeds and with varying force dependent upon who was around the table at the time, Pietro regularly changed the “table touchers”. Only the energy of movement changed, despite the constantly changing personnel. At nine thirty, the session drew to a close. Everyone had been spellbound by what they saw, no sceptics, of whom there had originally been more than me were able to offer any explanation for what they had seen – other than that they saw it.
Today, I was at a hotel and looked at a table. It was stationary. It was not going to move without being pushed. The idea that it could, the day after, seemed absurd – but I know what I saw…

 

Pietro will say that I witnessed ectenic force, where the table was moved by the collective psychic energy of those present.
Some may claim that all the table touchers were victims of the power of suggestion, causing everyone to subconsciously behave in a manner consistent with the expected outcome. Yet beforehand many expressed my uncertainty of what might follow. Faiure was as anticipated as success.
Others point to Odic force, and Galvanism, no more preposterous than any other explanation.
The most common explanation is one of simple physical manipulation – but I saw no evidence of that at very close quarters.
You decide.

 

 

Gary Longden

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‘Allo ‘Allo – Trinity Players, Sutton Arts Theatre

 

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As a television situation comedy series, ‘Allo ‘Allo was a steamroller success for a decade from 1982. Written by David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, it was a mix of cultural stereotypes, physical comedy, farce, sexual innuendo and sauce. The best comedy television series of the late 20th century have transferred to the stage with mixed results, with the likes of “Yes Minister” and “ Dad’s Army” amongst those who have sought to make that leap. I had not seen this as a stage version. I wondered firstly how easily it would adapt to the theatre, and secondly how well, thirty- five years on, the humour was going to travel.

The curtain opened to reveal a physical set which was impressive, convincing and authentic. Set manager John Islip has once again performed his role with customary aplomb. As the production wears on, its versatility becomes apparent too. Although the cast at twenty- three, is large, the success of any presentation of ‘Allo ‘Allo hinges on the character of Rene. Trinity Players are fortunate to have Paul Wescott in the role. He has the physical presence of Gordon Kaye, who defined the role, and enough natural ability to become the part, rather than an impersonation of Kaye. Lynette Coffey ,as his wife, has the difficult task of being his foil, failing to keep her man faithful, and failing to sing in tune to great comic effect, but shines in a performance which is enthusiastic, understated, and poignant.

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The show is famous for girls and stockings. Marie Lock (Yvette) tantalises and teases with comely abandon, Stephanie Miles (Helga) is a delight with her frustrated libido and mouse traps ( you have to have seen the show), Beth Hooper(Mimi) is somewhat more modest, but needs a box to stand on, so is excused!

Whirling around Rene are numerous character roles, all of whom have fun, and convince. Simon Baker’s gay Gruber always entertains, Steven Blower’s Flick is enjoyably repressed and authoritarian. The character of Captain Bertorelli is probably the most absurd, Ray Smith just goes with it, Colin Townsend as Von Strohm, the German Commander who wants to do as little commanding as possible made me chuckle whenever he appeared. I particularly enjoyed the pairing of Ray Lawrence as LeClerc, and Ann Dempsey as Madame Fanny, the elderly couple desperate to get it on before it is too late. The script is still funny and has plenty of laughs, although some of the front of curtain exchanges, designed to facilitate scene changes, work less well as stage vignettes than they would do as screen interludes, but that is a script, not production, issue.

I am a huge fan of the show. It transfers to stage well, and the humour endures. It may rely on stereotypes and familiarity, but it works. Director Hellie England, a veteran actress in farces, does not labour the innuendo and sauce, whilst ensuring that a stocking top is never far from view. The narrative moves at a brisk pace to a satisfyingly chaotic conclusion. As an amateur production, this is pretty much as good as it gets and runs to Saturday 23rd September.

Gary Longden

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Miss Saigon – Birmingham Hippodrome

miss saigon poster

*****

Invariably, this show is identified as the one with the helicopter . Just in case anyone was in any doubt about this, the lights go down to the sound of a helicopter swooping overhead. I had seen the show once before, around ten years ago, and had been hugely impressed. I arrived with expectations high.

 

Although the story is a reworking of the classic Puccini opera “Madame Butterfly”, the modernised narrative is gritty. We are taken through the sex bars of Saigon patronised by off- duty GI’s where bar owner, and pimp in chief The Engineer, marvellously played by Red Concepcion, plies his trade. Here, whore Kim falls in love with client GI Chris. They are separated by the evacuation, but Kim has a son by Chris. Post war, Chris returns to Saigon with his new wife Ellen, is briefly reunited with Kim and his son, but then faces a climactic ending as Kim commits suicide to attempt to force him to take their son back to the United States. It is an adult show, with adult themes, both of which contribute to a surprisingly large number of empty seats on a Friday night. In the summer, it is family shows sell.

 

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Dreamland entertains the GI’s

 

 

Four things stand out for me about this production. The singing is excellent, individually, and ensemble. The all -male chorus for “Bui Don” at the start of the second half is moving and sublime. The music is superbly arranged and played by conductor James Mckeon. Most outstanding of all is the lighting by Bruno Poet. It is an object lesson, admittedly with a bucket load of cash, of what can be achieved with lights. I have never seen a better lit show. Finally, the choreography is beautiful. I do not refer only to the big production numbers, but also the graceful movement of all cast members.

 

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The Enginer enjoys the American Dream

 

 

The magnificent sets, the music, lighting, singing and movement were sumptuous. On second viewing, the introduction of a cute kid ( around three years old?) as Kim and Chris’s son towards the end feels a little contrived, and the part of Ellen, Chris’s new wife, is underwritten and a little awkward. However overall this is a satisfying big production show where the set pieces impress, the songs stir, and the solo’s draw tears from the audience. Well worth a visit.

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