Lizzie UK premiere at the Greenwich Theatre

Thought you knew the story of Lizzie Borden? Think again. This refreshing new production of rock musical Lizzie is the finest masterclass in how to portray a murder story. Forget the six merry murderesses of Chicago – the four powerfully talented leading ladies of Lizzie are the new powerhouse of musical theatre feminism.

Lizzie Borden, renowned for being tried and acquitted for the axe murders of her father and stepmother in 1892, tells her tale in raging new fashion, bringing the many theories surrounding the true story to light through a mighty soundtrack of rock ballads. Deception, suppression, incest and homosexuality are explored in bloody and frank narrative of the killings and trial.

The production is largely minimalist, choosing to place focus on the classic rock elements – the sound and the visual. Heavy music, blazing lighting and sparingly-used graphics are put to great effect. You are immediately hit with a wall of light and sound and the energy doesn’t let up until the last. The cast sublimely weave in the theatrical element with Victoria Bussert’s direction but the clever use of microphones reminds you that this is, put simply, the ultimate alternative gig.

Bjørg Gamst(Lizzie Borden) and Eden Espinosa (Emma Borden)_Foto_Søren Malmose

Steven Cheslik-Demeyer’s and Alan Stevens Hewitt’s music is the shining beacon of this show, fantastically amplified by solid band and four outstanding performers. Bjorg Gamst, who originated the title role at the Frederica Theatre, commands the almost schizophrenic Lizzie Borden, seamlessly showcasing her vulnerability while similarly allowing herself to become the unhinged murderer. Bleu Woodward, playing her love interest Alice Russell, handles the suspecting change in her character with ease and grasps the love songs with Bjorg by the horns producing some great moments.

Playing Emma Borden, the canniving older sister of Lizzie, Eden Espinosa is a truly expert vocalist, and it was unfortunate that her character didn’t allow for more stage time. Each time she lifted her microphone she commanded the theatre with her voice. It’s hard to separate when the standards are this high but Jodie Jacobs as the Borden’s maid Bridget Sullivan might just have tipped it. Stunningly awesome vocals paired with a quick-witted, comical character, Jodie drew the eye and ear throughout, seemingly crafting the twisted plot.

Bjorg Gamst, Eden Espinosa

Simplistic staging is a hidden hero of this show, however when it comes to the actual murders you find it all a tad underwhelming. The tone has been set and you expect a little more theatrical vulgarity after an hour of intense, brazen, in-your-face performance. When the front row are given plastic ponchos you expect a little more than what you actually get. They could get away with completely unleashing the ‘blood’ and going a little crazy – it would work here.

Although that’s a minor issue and barely detracts from what is a class production. It has to be seen live. It is truly wonderful to see four intensely powerful and talented women rock a stage with unapologetic tenacity. We need more productions that showcase women like this on UK stages.

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The UK premiere of Lizzie plays at the Greenwich Theatre for just 20 performances until Sunday 12th March. Tickets are available here.

Gratefully written thanks to Theatre Bloggers and the #LDNTheatreBloggers.

Photo credits: Soren Malmose

RENT 20th Anniversary Tour, Churchill Theatre Bromley

Fresh from a sell-out London run at the St. James, Rent has launched into its 20th anniversary tour with passion, grit and standing ovations. The Churchill Theatre, Bromley was the next to experience the power and emotion of this musical classic in a first performance that left few dry eyes in the house.

Inspired by Puccini’s opera La bohème, Rent tells the moving story of a group of young artists struggling to survive in New York City’s East Village in the thriving days of Bohemian excess. Their relationships are tested by the struggles of HIV/AIDS, sexuality, poverty and loss.

LtoR Philippa Stefani as Mimi and Ross Hunter as Roger in RENT. Credit Matt Crockett

The production, directed by Bruce Guthrie, certainly does the late Jonathan Larson proud, bringing this hard-hitting tale to the stage with determined intensity yet responsible modesty, a balance never easy to find.

Casting to perfection, Rent has a wealth of talent in it’s midsts. Lucie Jones, recently crowned as the UK’s Eurovision entry, gives a masterclass in musical theatre, delivering Maureen’s protest with ridiculous wit and hilarity. Philippa Stefani is truly immersed in Mimi’s character, beautifully and tragically illustrating the extremity of her highs and lows, oozing character right until the end, not even indulging herself in a beaming bow.

Lucie Jones as Maureen in RENT. Credit Matt Crockett

Billy Cullum (Mark) and Ross Hunter (Roger) both charm the audience with believable purpose. Ross’ rendition of One Song Glory is stunning and Billy brilliantly holds the show throughout. Ryan O’Gorman’s portrayal of Tom, the joy at finding love and tragic heartbreak of losing it, is particularly moving. The relationship between him and Angel (played by Harrison Clark due to Layton William’s injury) is endearing until the last moment and Harrison steps into the role superbly.

Despite highlighting the specific triumphs, the cast as a group boast maybe the best collective vocals of any show around right now, despite some weaker voicemail sections. Seasons of Love leaves many speechless, although Shanay Holmes’ (Joanne) and Lucie’s rendition of Take Me or Leave Me is a personal highlight.

This production seamlessly fuses the elements at hand to great effect. Staging, lighting and set design reflects the edgy, uncertain times the characters face, while musically the rock elements flourish behind the vocals. My only gripe would be the occasional audio blip and the seemingly unnecessary turning of part of the set, which to me adds little but distracts greatly.

I’ve never been entirely convinced by the film, and by watching it on stage I was reminded of the true power of live performance. Everything about this show makes you invest and involve yourself not only in the individual stories but the overarching themes, a thing the film never quite succeeded in doing in my eyes. The theatre forces you to listen; forces you to give a damn about these people’s plights in a way that the media or TV just can’t match. Couple that with the stunning sound and you’ll soon find yourself stifling sobs within a silent, positively gripped audience. The 20th anniversary tour of Rent is a knockout sensation.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Rent runs at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley until Saturday 11th February before continuing its tour of the UK. Tickets available online.

Bumblescratch Gala Night at the Adelphi Theatre

The eagerly awaited addition to the Sherman dynasty scurried into the West End on Sunday 4th September with a star-studded charity gala performance of Bumblescratch, a new musical about a filthy rat during the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. On the surface Robert Sherman’s show has all the makings of a great musical – a renowned composer, a talented cast, artistic costumes and intriguing subject matter surrounding two of Elizabethan Britain’s most shocking events. Unfortunately it just doesn’t come together as one would hope.

Bumblescratch is a musical that doesn’t quite know where it’s going. Lascivious rat Melbourne Bumblescratch tells gruesome tales of London town in the 1600s after adopting a young rodent Perry as his sidekick. We learn he has stolen a precious jewel from King Rat Socrates and regularly dreams of a phantom friend, pirate rat Hookbeard, after eating dodgy cheese. For almost an hour you think it’s rivalling Cats with a seemingly lacking plot.

Bumblescratch; by Robert J Sherman; Directed and choreographed by Stewart Nicholls; with Darren Day; Ilan Galkoff; at The Adelphi Theatre; London,UK; on 4 September 2016; Photos by Francis Loney; T: 0207 254 1199; francisloney@talktalk.net; Unit One Quebec Wharf; 315 Kingsland Road, London, E8 4DJ.

Darren Day (Melbourne) and Ilan Galkoff (Perry) in Bumblescratch Photo by Francis Loney

Just as you settle into the concept of ‘Rats’ you hurtle into a storyline as Perry falls in love with a human girl, forcing Melbourne to watch over her before being brutally clubbed to death by her baker father. All within the last ten minutes of the first act! For a show billed as a ‘family musical-comedy’ it seems to have some identity issues. I don’t know many children who enjoy tales of whores being eaten, and I certainly didn’t hear many of them laughing in the theatre that night.

The score is obviously sophisticated with hints of beauty, particularly before the interval with Music of the Spheres and My Place in the Sun. There’s no stand-out hit – the one that you leave the theatre humming – but there could be. I felt these songs weren’t always explored to their full potential before moving on.

Michael Xavier as Hookbeard Photo by Francis Loney

Michael Xavier as Hookbeard
Photo by Francis Loney

Saying that the cast performances were outstanding throughout the ensemble making the gala enjoyable despite the musical’s issues. Darren Day does his best to navigate you through a difficult plot, instantly establishing a likeable narrator in Melbourne Bumblescratch. His witty and funny performance is to be commended alongside young star Ilan Galkoff as Perry, who handles a particularly mature and vocally-heavy role with ease. Michael Xavier is simply stunning as Hookbeard, although not nearly used enough during the show. Mention must go to Cathy Read as Thamesa whose gorgeous vocals will be heard from another West End stage soon I’m sure.

It’s almost a shame to criticise something that has so much potential but it does need work. A plot outline in the programme is something I usually think redundant but in this case it was a necessity! You shouldn’t have to study the show afterwards just to find out what happened, especially when it’s described as a family show. However I’d like to see the show again after some work, and definitely with a similarly talented cast.

⭐⭐

Review organised by #LDNTheatreBloggers. Want your show reviewed? Access a two-hundred strong blog community through Theatre Bloggers.

Keep Dancing UK tour

With Strictly waltzing back onto our screens this month, it’s certainly the perfect time for the Ballroom and Latin extravaganza Keep Dancing to kick off its UK tour! I caught the show at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley where guest star Lisa Riley lit up the stage for the week.

After getting a sneak preview of rehearsals a few weeks ago I was delighted to see the show come to life, with a ten-strong professional dance troupe, a talented singing trio and percussionists as well as our Strictly favourites Robin Windsor and Anya Garnis! It was definitely a step-up from the fantastic Puttin’ on the Ritz tour from 2015 with fresh song choices ranging from Ballroom classics such as New York, New York and recent hits such as Play That Sax.

It is great to see a variety of styles, even an ingenious contemporary piece from two of the dance troupe to a remix of I Want it That Way. This show wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries, particularly with Robin’s awesome, dramatic all-male piece in the second act ,and it incorporates all the performers flawlessly no matter what the style.

The costumes are dazzling as always but the real sparkle comes from former Strictly contestant and TV star Lisa Riley. She bounces on stage with her iconic jive and immediately lights up the room with her stunning personality. She may not be a professional dancer but she’s a professional performer and you can’t help but beam throughout her routines.

Robin and Anya hold the show together with class, dipping in and out of the numbers with ease, although the highlight as before is their sensuous rumba. They are simply a flawless pairing! With a striking Gloria Estefan finale getting the crowd on their feet, it’s clear this show hits the spot with audiences. Slick choreography, with a touch of elegance and Latin spice; the odd missed lift or costume change slip aside, David King, Emma Rogers and Innis Robertson have created an entertainment masterpiece.

Lisa is set to join the tour again when it arrives at Woking in October, but if you’re booked in elsewhere you’ll enjoy performances from Jay & Aliona, Louis Smith and Chelsee Healey. Full casting information and tour dates can be found on the website.

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Save the Last Dance for Me UK Tour

The latest jukebox delight to tour the UK is Bill Kenwright’s Save the Last Dance for Me – a musical packed with Sixties classics, American airmen and good old British humour. It may not be a groundbreaking piece of theatre but it’s strongly cast and full of hits that audiences will love.

Sisters Jennifer and Marie head to Lowestoft for a classic British Summer holiday by the seaside but their lives are turned upside down when they meet the boys of the American military based there. Youngest sister Marie quickly falls for Curtis, a black airman and their relationship blossoms, but will the colour of Curtis’ skin get in the way of their love?

The story is a slightly predictable ‘classic’ love story, but the script is fun and well-structured. It’s quickly apparent that the music is a huge highlight of this production, with an immensely skilled on stage band of actor-musicians that are kept busy from the start, whether they’re blasting out a brilliant tune, jumping into minor roles or smoothly leading an a capella number. The soundtrack includes well-known Sixties hits such as Sweets for my Sweet, Viva Las Vegas and Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.

Save the Last Dance for Me, Antony Costa

Headlining the show is boyband star Antony Costa, previously of Blue fame, whose gorgeous voice is perfectly showcased in this musical in the role of Milton. It’s not often you get a touring show with two popstars-turned-musical stars that are actually triple threats but the creative team have struck gold here, not only with Costa but also with X Factor finalist Lola Saunders. Playing the role of Jennifer, Lola has definitely found a new calling – funny, bold and boasting a great pair of lungs. It was great to see her dancing too, although her diction sometimes needs a bit of attention.

However, the two stars of this show have to be Wayne Robinson (Curtis) and Elizabeth Carter (Marie). Both charming and talented, the sweet pair are certainly standout performers.

Save the Last Dance for Me, Lola Saunders and Elizabeth Carter

The choreography could have been a little more adventurous, although in keeping with the era. The set-changes are smooth and far from fussy. Technically the show is spot on which adjusts all the focus to the true winner of this piece – the music! The show may hit the spot for audiences wanting a good night out but it’s no innovative theatrical hit; a standard jukebox musical with surprisingly good performances, particularly from the four main characters, that will make you leave with a smile on your face.

Save the Last Dance for Me is at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley until Satuday 6th August before continuing its tour of the UK. Tickets are available online here.

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Photo credit: Idil Sukon-Draw