Saturday, 30 January 2010

Return to the Menier...

Here is my review for Sweet Charity, which I saw today. It's a really great, enjoyable show, and I couldn't recommend it more. In the end I gave it four out of five stars:

I love the Menier Chocolate Factory. As a matter of fact, I think it’s my favourite theatre. It’s just so quirky, and the other audience members are so friendly that it almost doesn’t matter that you’re seated practically on top of one another. The seating is the only thing I would change about the Menier. The problem is, after about an hour one’s bottom always goes to sleep due to the hard, wooden benches with about 2mm of foam on them. Luckily, Act One was an hour and twenty minutes, and Act Two slightly shorter than that, so my bum wasn’t numb for too long today. Nice benches are the ones at the Young Vic.

I had been to the Menier once before prior to Sweet Charity. This was for Forbidden Broadway, which captured my imagination and was the first show to ever really make me laugh. So when the Menier’s Christmas musical was announced, I decided that I would go and see it. I saw Little Shop of Horrors on tour, La Cage aux Folles in the West End, and totally missed seeing A Little Night Music before it left for Broadway (with hindsight I would have hotfooted it down to the Garrick). This time I, though, I thought I would go and see a Menier musical before it transferred.

We sat in the front row. This was great, there was extra legroom and every single wrinkle was visible on the actors’ faces. It felt as though I was really involved in the show, and not just a spectator from afar, which I loved. It also got me thinking of how amazing La Cage must have been at the Menier. It would have been like being in the actual club. Maybe that was the inspiration....

Anyway. Sweet Charity was originally performed on Broadway in 1966 and swiftly adapted into a film starring the wonderful Shirley Maclaine. I had tried to watch the film last night, before going to the show, but the DVD decided to stop working after 40 minutes. Annoyances of this aside, I can say that from what I saw the film was adapted remarkably accurately from the show, with many of the lines identical. In this respect I’m glad that I actually didn’t finish watching the film, else it would have been like when I saw We Will Rock You for the second time and I knew all the jokes.

Cy Coleman composed Sweet Charity. The only other musical he composed that I have heard of is Barnum, which I have never even listened to. Of course almost everyone is familiar with the song Hey Big Spender, but other than that I was clueless about the score. It had never occurred to me to listen to Coleman’s work before. I can say that I really enjoyed the score; it was magnificently composed and fit the era exceptionally well. The book, by Neil Simon, kept the story moving at a good pace, although the ending did drag a little. The jokes were funny, and there were many quotable lines. Who knew that “Up yours” came from Sweet Charity?

I was nervous about seeing another production directed by Matthew White. I didn’t really like his interpretation of Little Shop of Horrors. The comedic element was absolutely fantastic, but he failed to evoke any empathy towards the characters and the whole thing felt like a bad attempt at a child’s cartoon. I have to say, though, his direction of Sweet Charity was great. The actors were given plenty to do, often exaggerated which really suited the piece, and although many of the characters came across as clichéd and one sided that was what the piece called for, in its basic form.

For me, Stephen Mear’s choreography was exceptional. Sweet Charity was originally choreographed by Bob Fosse, who was well ahead of his time when he was working. From Chicago to Cabaret, Fosse’s unique style is always evident. Mear managed to include several of his trademarks, but also modernised it in a way and made it suit the space perfectly.

The lighting design was good, though a little too obvious in places. I thought the set design was perfect, not too much and not too little. Even though the stage at the Menier is very small height was still used in an interesting way, although some of the scene changes seemed to take a little too long.

Tamzin Outhwaite in the title role was a complete surprise. I had heard her name before and read numerous interviews with her, but had never seen her acting in anything. I was pleasantly surprised by her comedic timing, her constant energy and her good vocals. She handled the breakdown capably, but didn’t really make me feel anything, although it was a good performance and my attention was drawn to her whenever she was on stage. Tamzin has actually just come back from a week or so off because of illness, which shows how strong and professional she is – you would never have known from her performance.

Tiffany Graves was good as Helene, even better than when I saw her as Velma Kelly in Chicago. I really want to see her in a role that doesn’t involve playing some kind of dancer who is quite bitchy, though. I really want to see how she would handle a character that the audience is supposed to feel empathy for.

Josefina Gabrielle was great playing both Nickie and Ursula, making the two roles completely different and delivering a consistent performance throughout. Aside from Tamzin, she really stood out from the rest of the cast. Quite a task really, because the whole ensemble were fantastic, always full of energy and handling numerous costume/character changes with ease.

Finally, Mark Umbers was hilarious as Charity’s numerous love interests. I actually didn’t realise that he played all of them until I looked in the programme on the way home.

Overall, Sweet Charity is deserving of a West End transfer, although the atmosphere of the Menier made it a really great, natural setting for the show. I preferred it to the Young Vic revival of Annie Get Your Gun, because even though the story and direction of Annie Get Your Gun were better, and the casts of both shows were about the same, the overall design and appeal of Sweet Charity is far greater.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Deutsche Filme, Teil 1

To say that I am bad at speaking German is an understatement. It's frustrating how much German I can understand, but how I can say so little in comparison. Since I discovered my love of Spanish cinema (well, mainly Pedro Almodovar) despite not knowing a word of Spanish, I decided that it was time to watch a German film.

I saw Let The Right One In, a Swedish horror film, in June, and instantly realised that it was one of my top films of 2008/2009. It was absolutely amazing, and just took the horror/vampire genre to a whole new level. So I was hoping that German films would offer the same originality and flair, and be able to go where Hollywood has long since stopped venturing. By this, I mean originality.

Anyway. The film I watched was called Lola Rennt and released in 1998. Every exam paper, text book and teaching resource seems to talk about Lola Rennt, in the way that all the French resources talk about Amélie (brilliant film by the way, I gave it at least 90/100).

When I started watching Lola Rennt (The English title is: Run Lola Run) I had no idea what to expect. At first it seemed like an average action film with not much of a story/meaning to anything. But then Lola was shot. I thought it was the end of the film, then realised that it had only been on for twenty minutes. Then the second perspective of the story started, and I realised what was going on.

As the film continued, I thought the story developed really well and managed to give all the characters a proper personality. It was mainly because of this that the film was engaging the whole way through. The story was very clever, although I had to concentrate hard to follow what was going on at some points. There was also a very good use of cartoons to represent certain things, similar to in Berlin, Berlin, a German TV series that I've watched a couple of episodes of.

For a film that came out in 1998, the special effects were quite good, especially because I'm assuming that it was made on a relatively low budget. From what I could deduce from the subtitles (English subtitling is so much slower for German films than French or Spanish because the sentences are longer), the script was good, and I thought the director handled the story very well, though the camera angles were not the best. The film is set in East Germany, so it was interesting to see the effects of the Berlin Wall even after it had been destroyed.

I really liked Franka Potente's portrayal of Lola. She managed to be sexy in a subtle way, not so it hindered her acting, very much in the way of Angelina Jolie. I thought it was a performance with depth and many layers to it. Manni, her boyfriend, was played by Moritz Bleibtreu. Annoyingly, I don't have any other examples to compare their work to, but his performance was a bit boring right up until the last scene. Then it was awesome.

Although the film was ignored by the Oscars, I think that it definitely deserved some recognition, in the same way that Let The Right One In did.

I've just finished watching Love Actually (or Tasachlich....Liebe) in German. I'd seen it three times before in English, which is unusual for me because I never usually like romantic comedies enough to endure them, I mean watch them, for a second time. However, in the way I like Bridget Jones, I am actually rather fond of Love Actually. As a maker of romantic comedies, Richard Curtis is far superior to his peers, and never fails to deliver a clever script, great cast and a concept that is as original as it can be.

I've never watched a film with dubbing before. I elected to set the language to German and to refrain from using the English subtitles to see how I would cope with no English whatsoever. I don't really want to admit this, but after only watching it three times previously I found that I know pretty much all of the script, so could decipher most of the lines fairly quickly and accurately. Watching a film with dubbing is not an experience I want to repeat, I'd rather have subtitles, because the voices didn't really match the emotions or the accents of the characters, hindering the portrayals a bit.

So....Love, Actually. I really like Hugh Grant as an actor. He may not be the best actor in the world, but he is always witty and charming, sort of an acquired taste. Everytime I see Liam Neeson I am reminded that I need to watch Schindler's List - his performance in Love Actually is great, so in the male equivalent of Sophie's Choice he must be as good as Meryl. If not better.

I also love Emma Thompson, and find her performance to be the truest of the all in this film. Generally, the rest of the ensemble cast are all good, although I do find Bill Nighy's outfits a tad offputting to say the least.

Sometimes you just need a little bit of feelgood. Not very often, though. I still prefer independent, arthouse films and biopics above all. I really want to find some more great German films now. I'm really looking forward to seeing Die Weisse Band (The White Ribbon).


Saturday, 23 January 2010

Meryl's not complicated!

I love Meryl Streep. Since I became a film fan, which was over a year ago now, she was one of the first actresses I noticed. And as I noticed her more, and saw more and more of her films, I realised how special she is, and that I share the opinion of many movie critics, actors and directors: she is the best living actress. I have never seen a film where she has failed to give a good performance, and whilst she has never starred in or even been featured in a "true classic" (think The Godfather, Fight Club, Some Like It Hot, type of films), she has always made great films with a proper premise and script, with few exceptions, and is almost always the best actor in the film.

So, I went to see It's Complicated. Recently Meryl seems to have been focusing on more commerical films than what she used to do - awesome dramas or quirky comedies, which were very often independent. Not that that's been much of a problem for me.

I detested Mamma Mia with a passion - surely even the adaptation of A Chorus Line from the 1980s is a better musical adaptation than this trash - but Meryl's performance was the one thing that made me finish the film. Then there was Doubt, pbviously not mainstream, but still a splendid performance opposite the wonderful Amy Adams. Then Meryl and Amy were once again together in Julie and Julia, which was a great adaptation of the novel, and saw Meryl shine as Julia Child, totally eclipsing poor Amy.

Nora Ephron directed Julie and Julia, a director and writer with a priven track record of raising average comedies, some being romantic, from the mediocre to the magnificent. She directed Sleepless in Seattle - what more can I say? So, when I found out in the February of last year that Meryl was due to team up with Nancy Meyers for a romantic comedy, I was excited.

Nancy Meyers directed the remake of The Parent Trap (1999) starring Lindsay Lohan. Whilst it was no patch on the original, it was a fresh take on the story and a lot better than the average films of thus type. Then came Something's Gotta Give (2003), starring Diane Keaton, who received an Oscar nomination for this role. Annoyingly, I got this film for my Mum for Christmas, and we still haven't had a chance to watch it, so I haven't yet seen it. For Keaton to garner an Oscar nomination, though, the film must have had to have been of a good quality, with the script and direction close to perfect. So, this was what first got me thinking about Meryl + Nancy = Oscar nomination number 16, and maybe, win number 3. I know now that Meryl will undoubtedly be nominated for Julie and Julia, what with the Globes and the Critics' Choice awards, and It's Complicated will go almost unnoticed, at least on the Meryl front.

Anyway, I went to see the film eight days ago, but haven't had a chance to come online before now. It was better than the average romantic comedy, which normally leave my mind numb and a horrible lingering thought about the future of Hollywood, if this is how far it's managed to deteriorate in the space of the decade. It was also refreshing to see a romantic comedy with the two leads above the age of, shall we say thirty!

It's Complicated was not as good as The Holiday, another Nancy Meyers film starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, purely because it was too long and the story was elongated beyond it's means. Having said that, the script was clever and the direction was good, especially Meyers' use of symbolism, a tool so underused by directors of today. The setting was also paticularly nice, but one does wonder why it took a schedule of over three months to film.

Meryl was good as Jane, but she used too many of her Meryl-isms. She was believable, yes, but to be honest it was a bit of a boring role, probably nothing like the Diane Keaton role in Something's Gotta Give. But considering the film has hit the $90million mark at the US Box Office it proves that, at the age of 60, Meryl still has impressive box office clout.

Alec Baldwin as Jake (stupid, similar sounding name to Jane) gave a good performance, but I am now aching to see his earlier work because these days it's like he plays Jack Donaghey in everything. I am a huge "30 Rock" fan, but wish that during the hiatus he would play different film roles instead of always playing the sex god, know it all, rich, end of middle age guy who all the women seem to love. Why? Eww! This, of course, does not effects his comic timing and delivery.

I love Steve Martin. He charmed me as the Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors and he continues to play the loveable, guy next door. His character was boring, but he did what he could and comes across as extremely likeable as always.

So, overall, the film was enjoyable, but nothing special, as keeps happening from Meryl these days. I wish we could return to 2002, where Meryl made two of the best films of her career and did two of her best performances in Adaptation and The Hours. Please!

Saturday, 9 January 2010

New beginnings, new musicals

The first musical that I saw of 2010 was a new, original musical which isn't a revival or something that's been running for years and years. I love living so close to London, where every year a vast quantity of acclaimed plays open, and where there are amazing producing houses such as the National Theatre and the Old Vic, but sometimes I can't help feeling jealous of the folk who live in New York. On Broadway around ten new musicals open every year, with at least four or five being original. I was pleased when I heard that Legally Blonde was to open in London, because although it first opened on Broadway it is a new musical. After the Spring Awakening fiasco, it's probable success may prompt producers to transfer In the Heights or Next to Normal. I know they're completely different to Legally Blonde with different themes and target markets, but you never know.

Despite the snow, the theatre was full. The majority of the audience was in high spirits to say the least. This excitement seemed to grow when certain cast members appeared on the stage. I don't think I've ever seen such an excited audience! Here is my shorter than usual review:

The book of the musical was written by Heather Hach. Although many of the jokes were quite predictable, they proved to be surprisingly witty and a lot more amusing than those in similar pieces. The characters all had subtle differences in the way their speech was written, which was enough to develop their characters but not to make it seem like a pantomime.

The score was catchy. By no means was it Gershwin, but it will be enjoyable to listen to again and again and certainly suited the theme of the story. It certainly lent itself well to the choreography, which was not over-complicated and executed very well by the cast.

The show originally opened in 2007 at the Palace Theatre on Broadway, which has a significantly larger stage than the Savoy. The set has not been changed in any way, so it was amazing to see how it had been downscaled to fit on a smaller stage. That must have taken a lot of work. The set really good and reminded me of the Sister Act set at times. There was just the right amount for most scenes, and set movement never disrupted the flow of the show.

The cast appeared to be on top form, probably conscious not only of the presence of several critics but also of the looming opening night on Wednesday. Sheridan Smith shone as Elle Woods, her accent was flawless and she carried the show extremely well. She managed to pull off the ditzy part of Elle but also showed depth and was very endearing. Despite having not much in the way of formal vocal and dance training she succeeded very well in these aspects, and is now one of my favourite stage actresses.

Duncan James as Warner was “regulation hottie”, as it would probably be said in America. His performance was okay, nothing out of the ordinary. Alex Gaumond’s Emmett, like Warner, was overshadowed by Sheridan and the supporting cast, but played a second, enjoyable romantic lead.

As Paulette, Jill Halfpenny did not disappoint, probably giving the most impressive vocal performance in the show. I had no idea of her acting talents before today and was stunned by her ability to be comedic but not over the top.

When I saw Chicago I was lucky enough to see Aoife Mullholland play Roxie Hart. Today as Brooke she was fantastic – how she managed to sing whilst skipping during Whipped Into Shape is totally beyond me! Her role was a bit similar to Roxie Hart in the way of events which happen to the characters, but the way she played her was totally different. She definitely stole the first part of the second act.

I can vaguely remember Caroline Keiff playing Nessarose when I saw Wicked, and thinking that her performance and Kerry Ellis were two of the very few things I liked about the show. Today she played Vivienne, another supporting role. I can’t imagine her in a lead role, but I think that she is a great supporting actress who has great chemistry with loads of other actors. She made the role of Vivienne interesting and more than the stereotype it could have slipped into.

Finally, Peter Davison as Proffesor Callahan gave an enjoyable performance and rounded off the principal cast nicely. A special mention must go to the two dogs who’s participation resulted in many “ahs” from the audience. I’m not a particular dog person, but will admit that they were cute. The ensemble performed with great energy, doing a lot more than perhaps a typical ensemble would in a musical. Every member was given a chance to shine in their own way.

Overall, I am sure that Legally Blonde will become a cult hit in the West End, particularly with teenage girls. It’s great to see a variety of shows being successful so there’s something for everyone. It’s also nice to see a cast made up of quite a few well known people perform so well.

I give Legally Blonde 3 ½ stars out five and have ranked it at number 12 on my ongoing top musicals list, directly below Mary Poppins and directly above Little Shop of Horrors. It was very enjoyable, and is sure to cheer anyone up.

Friday, 1 January 2010

From 8 1/2, to Nine, to Nine, to.....7 1/2????

I still can't make my mind up! I thought it was going to be my film of the year - ever since I heard that it started filming last December I was so excited, eagerly anticipating the first time that I would see a musical at the cinema (I don't really count Mamma Mia as a musical in case anyone was wondering).

Nine is directed by Rob Marshall, who directed the film adaptation of Chicago, one of my all-time favourite films, which I'm going to rewatch later. Nine has an amazing cast, which I like more overall than the Chicago cast, so it had all the ingredients to be fantastic. So why wasn't it?

In Chicago (film version) the musical numbers are from Roxie's point of view, which works really well. In Nine they were from Guido's point of view, but for me this didn't work as well, and if a cinema-goer was not aware that this was where the numbers were taking place they would end up being very confused. It just wasn't realistic - Roxie's obsession with the stage warrants the numbers taking place in her head, but here it didn't seem to work, maybe because they all took place in very extravagant places, instead of in the same place, which is how it works in Chicago. Unless, the extravagant places were meant to be a film set. I just thought of this, and that definitely explains it.

The dialogue and non musical scenes were directed very well, and the choreography and musical staging was also done very well. It just seemed quite disjointed the way they fit together and the story kept juddering. The editing was not as good as it could have been. The screenplay was okay, but didn't really develop the characters properly - I had no real idea who any of them were, even by the end of the film. The story had so much potential, but for me this was just not realised.

Some thoughts on the cast:

Daniel Day-Lewis - Surely one of the best actors of our generation, yet floundered hopelessly. The role of Guido seemed so boring, there seemed to be a depth to it that he couldn't quite bring out. Plus, he almost spoke instead of singing, and there was no real reason to "care" about his character as the story progressed.

Marion Cottilard - I really liked her performance as Luisa, her two musical numbers were great, really different from how she performed in La Vie en Rose, showing her versatility. She was endearing, but sadly starved of screentime.

Penelope Cruz - I really like Penelope, and her role suited her really well. "Call from the Vatican" was probably the second best musical number, after Be Italian. She definitely looked the part and I really enjoyed watching her. Her storyline was probably the most interesting.

Nicole Kidman - Boring....I know Catherine Zeta-Jones was originally cast in this role, and I think she would have made more of it. I love Nicole as an actress, but she was just there - she didn't really do anything memorable or add anything to the film. Also, her singing really hasn't improved since Moulin Rouge, which is a shame.

Kate Hudson - Hmmm.....I still haven't made up my mind on her as an actress. Her musical number seemed too over the top, but her acting was decent enough.

Stacey Ferguson (Fergie) - I was pleasantly surprised, Be Italian was easily the best number and her vocal performance was fantastic.

Judi Dench - A good supporting actress, as always. It was annoying the way that her character wasn't even Italian, but she sung in an irritating Italian accent.

Sophia Loren - Fit her role really well. I quite enjoyed her performance, I haven't seen any other films with her in but will need to check them out.

I think it will be like Chicago, whereby I watched it, thought it was okay, then thought little more of it until I watched it again, brought the full Broadway and West End cast recordings, ended up loving them and understanding the whole story. And then, of course, I saw Chicago on stage. I would love to see this on stage, because I think then the film will compliment it nicely in the way that Chicago does for me now. But for the moment, I give Nine 74/100, which rounds to 7 and a half.