Musicals Around The World with Peter Pinne

LONDON – September 2005

BILLY ELLIOT is an enjoyable show but not the greatest British musical ever written as one of the critics claimed. It’s a good story with a second rate score. In fact it made me think of BILLY the 1974 Michael Crawford starrer, set in similar territory, with a strong play as its base, but a weak score. BILLY ELLIOT is more musical play. All of the emotion in the piece comes from the book. There’s no emotion in Elton John’s music. But there is a pas de deux in the second act that works beautifully with Billy and his older self which is done to Swan Lake. It’s tears time, but then it’s Tchaikovsky’s music! The boy playing Billy was terrific as was the kid playing Michael his gay friend. Their cross-dressing number was a showstopper. The juxtaposition of the miners strike against Billy’s powerful drive to dance works at times, but sometimes the social comment takes over, ie: Margaret Thatcher etc. I didn’t warm to any of the adult characters. The accents were very broad and it was difficult to understand some of it. I have to admit I came to the show with some baggage as I never really liked the movie. The score very rarely rose to the occasion, although I did like the grandmother’s song �We’ll Go Dancing.� The first song �The Stars Look Down� was beautifully arranged and sung, but seemed to have a musical range of three notes. It became very boring. I was outraged by the second number �Shine,� sung by the dance teacher and her class of little girls. The first line of the chorus, which was repeated several times, was �Give �em the old razzle dazzle,� which immediately made one think they were going to do the number from CHICAGO. It didn’t help that it was in the same style as that number. Couldn’t they have thought of a different lyric? There was another number in the first act with the dance teacher and Billy where the piano player, a fat man, joined in for no reason at all. He immediately took over the number and did cartwheels across the stage. It was all so false but the audience loved it. Likewise, the curtain calls when every cast member entered wearing tutus. It was pretty �camp,’ and the audience loved it, but it was out-of-place with what we’d seen before. At times you could see the hand of the director. It was not seamless by any means. Still, it’s a gigantic hit and will run for years. I doubt it has an international life. It’s been slated for Broadway and it’ll be interesting to see how it does there. I personally don’t think it stands a chance.

MARY POPPINS on the other hand was a wonderful well-crafted musical awash with joire de vive. I loved it. Everything about it worked beautifully. The new songs which supplemented the film score were spot on, the cast were one of the best I’ve seen in ages, and the choreography and production was first rate. It’s difficult to single out performances, they were all so good, but Gavin Lee as Bert was just a little bit better than everyone else. But I still loved Laura Michelle Kelly as Mary Poppins, David Haig and the father and Linzi Hateley as the mother. Jenny Galloway landed all the laughs as the housekeeper, and Rosemary Ashe was a delicious vile Mrs Andrew. One aspect of the production I really liked was that all of the principals could dance as well as the chorus, so that when it was a full routine, everybody did it. It made for extremely exciting theatre. There’s no doubt this show has an international life. I can see it working everywhere.

NEW YORK – September 2005

DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS is a good old-fashioned musical comedy, with the emphasis on comedy. A funny book, witty lyrics, and a cast to die for, the show is an exhilarating romp from start to finish. John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz were terrific as the con men of the title, with Sherie Rene Scott just wonderful as the woman they con. Joanna Gleason turned in a good performance as the “older” woman, and Sara Gettelfinger made her mark as Jolene, the girl from Oklahoma. The score by David Yazbek was fun and worked for the show. I doubt there will be any breakout numbers, but “Nothing Is Too Wonderful To Be True” is a classy ballad. The production has a very art deco look to it, in keeping with Riviera setting.

ALL SHOOK UP was a jukebox musical which used the Elvis Presley catalogue of songs for a story about a young, guitar playing, roustabout who fires up a rural town. The cast were terrific, the choreography was terrific, and the production was terrific, but the book was so lame that interest paled midway through the first act. Second was not much better. Cheyenne Jackson as the hip-swinging roustabout was a spunk, with a glorious voice and charismatic stage presence. Everyone worked hard but ultimately the material defeated them.

ALTAR BOYZ is a show about a Christian boy band. The gimmick is that during each performance they save the souls of the audience. It’s a thin premise, but the show is a hit and the audiences love it. It isn’t really a show, but just a send-up of a boy band group. The four piece musical group are on-stage the whole performance, with the five guys of the group fronting them. There are no set changes, just some appropriate lighting cues throughout the short piece. It plays without an interval. There are some amusing lyrics, “Jesus called me on his cell phone. No roaming charges were incurred,” which is witty, but there’s not enough of them.

THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA by Adam Guettel is really a chamber opera, even though it won the Tony for Best Musical. It’s an exquisite production, a wonderful cast, and it’s beautifully sung, but it’s hard going. One third of the piece is sung in Italian, which distances the audience from the characters and doesn’t allow them to become emotionally involved in their story. And it’s a very emotional story with a mentally challenged young woman in her twenties falling in love with a young Italian man whilst on holiday in Italy with her mother. Victoria Clark as the mother was brilliant and deserved her Tony Award. Kelli O’Hara as the girl and Aaron Lazar as the boy were both excellent. The string heavy orchestrations were lovely, but the score is short on melody and long on recitative. You don’t come out whistling the tunes!

BROADWAY ON BROADWAY is an annual event where traffic is stopped in Times Square and Broadway performers give a free concert. It happened on Sunday morning September 18. A huge stage was built on the roadway, big enough to accommodate a full Broadway orchestra and cast The event was televised and as it was happening all of the TV screens in Times Square showed the performance. Christina Applegate and John Lithgow hosted the show with the cast members from 14 current, and 2 upcoming,  Broadway shows strutting their stuff. Paul Gemignani conducted the orchestra which started the concert with the FUNNY GIRL overture. Shows represented included AVENUE Q, HAIRSPRAY, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, ALL SHOOK UP, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, MAMMA MIA, THE PRODUCERS, WICKED, SPELLING BEE, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and SWEET CHARITY. The two new shows were THE COLOR PURPLE and IN MY LIFE. Artists included Cheyenne Jackson, La Chanze, Ann Harada, Darlene Love, Victoria Clark and Ashley Brown who all performed in street clothes. Best performances were Kissy Simmons and Josh Tower doing “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from THE LION KING, the cast of RENT doing “Seasons Of Love,” and the cast of LENNON singing “Imagine” which closed the concert. It was a wonderful celebration of Broadway which was topped off at the finale by ticker-tape descending from all of the buildings around Times Square. A magical moment.         

BROADWAY UNPLUGGED was the second annual “Unplugged” concert at Town Hall. The cast roster was enormous with many of the performers from the “Broadway By The Year” series; Sutton Foster, Marc Kudisch, Emily Skinner, Euan Morton, Chuck Cooper, Mary Bond Davis and others. Ross Patterson handled musical direction, with direction by Dan Foster and hosting by the creator, Scott Siegel. There were some standout performances which included; William Michals “Some Enchanted Evening”, Mary Testa’s “The Thrill Is Gone”, and Cheyenne Jackson’s “Joey, Joey, Joey”.

Peter Pinne is President of Bayview Recording Company:

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