Sunday, 29 September 2013

West Side Story - A Timeless Musical!

I've seen West Side Story back in 1996.  A local amateur company performed the musical at my local theatre.  I don't remember much about the performance but thanks to the movie I remembered the great musical score by Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and the incredible choreography and dancing which Jerome Robbins originally conceived.

My friend and I recalled our memories of West Side Story when we went to see Michael Brenner's production of West Side Story at Liverpool's Empire Theatre.  I know I was tapping in my seat during the memorable musical numbers and this reminded me how legendary West Side Story really is.

We had Katie Hall as Maria (I've seen her as Christine on The Phantom of the Opera UK Tour 2012/13 and Dom Hudson who stood in for Louis Maskell as Tony.  I thoroughly enjoyed their performances along with the other principals, Djalenga Scott (Anita), Javier Cid (Bernado) and Jack Wilcox (Riff).

I was mostly impressed with the incredible and breathtaking dancing and how this choreographed perfectly throughout the show.  Looking at the cast's biographies, most of them are accomplished dancers and no doubt their talents shone through on the stage.  The dancing told the story as much as Sondheim's lyrics.  I think West Side Story comes across as such as an innovative modern dance production as well as a legendary musical.

West Side Story, written by Arthur Laurents, is a tragedy based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  The lovers are related to two separate gangs who notably have a deep hatred for one another.  Not only the story is based on the love of Tony and Maria there is the background of racial prejudice, social deprivation and general ignorance especially from the city's authorities who had their own prejudices. My friend and I had an interesting discussion about the social and complex messages raised from the show.  What is not tolerated today was acceptable in the 1950/1960s and some issues such as segregation, the prohibition of mixed marriages and so forth were then legally and socially supported.

Through the singing and dancing, disillusion was expressed in America by the Shark Girls who dreamed of a better life in America but only to have expressed reality of contrast.  The Jets demonstrated a lack of respect for the authorities in Gee, Officer Krupke and indicating juvenile delinquency.  West Side Story can relate to a lot of social issues of today as much as when the musical was created nearly 60 years ago.  Joey McNeeley, the current director, said that stories of racism leads to tragic consequences and how ignorance and prejudices can deny what many people yearn for, love and peace.

West Side Story has something for everyone: A tragic love story; the incredible dancing and it's amazing choreography; and the social messages of importance today.  I look forward to seeing West Side Story next year when it comes to the Leeds Grand Theatre.

Titanic at the Southwark Playhouse

Following a number of theatre fan friends' and acquaintances' recommendations I'd booked myself a passage to see this critically acclaimed musical by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone at the Southwark Playhouse in London.

Photo Credit: (from
I went on the last day of it's production run. It certainly explained why the last two performances were sold out because of the great reviews it received.  House programmes were also sold out and I've had to wait for my programme to be reprinted which since then I've kindly received.

Everyone knows the story of the Titanic, the "unsinkable ship" (Titanic the movie, Cameron, 1997) that sunk! Also the popular James Cameron movie featuring the story of Jack (Leo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet).  However this musical explores the characterisation of the passengers and crew on the fateful voyage.  I loved how Yeston's music and Stone's story focused on the individual characters.  You know that a lot of thought has gone into this show and how this link nicely with the facts.

The musical began with the introduction of Mr Andrews (Greg Castiglioni) when he examined the architectural drawings of the ship.  It was nice to see Greg in another production after seeing him in The Phantom of the Opera UK Tour during 2012/13.  This follows by Mr Ismay (Simon Green) who celebrated the launch of the Titanic and it being the 'ship of dreams' (Titanic the movie, Cameron, 1997) through the song, In Every Age.  Like Greg, I saw Simon as Monsieur Andre on the Phantom Tour.

The company opened the musical with Opening and Godspeed Titanic.  The First Class passengers celebrated their voyage toasting What A Remarkable Age This Is and the three Kates (Victoria Serra, Scarlett Courtney and Grace Eccle) in Third Class dreamed of a better life in America singing Lady's MaidAlice Beane (Celia Graham), travelling in Second Class, was keen to mix with the rich and famous and this was reflected in I have danced with the First Class passengers.  Her quest was comically reflected throughout the show even during the poignant times in Act Two.  I saw Celia as Christine in Love Never Dies numerous of times during 2011.  It was great seeing her again perform.

Act One gave a thorough introduction to some of the passengers on the voyage and focused on the romances between four couples on the voyage: Kate and Jim (Shane McDaid); the Beanes (Celia Graham and Oliver Hemborough), the Strausses (Dudley Rogers and Judith Street) and the Clarkes (Claire Marlowe and Nadim Naaman).  Eventually the story built up a very powerful and emotive climax when the crew learnt that the ship had hit an iceburg.

Beginning of Act Two revealed the sudden realisation of the ill fated ship, Wake up, Wake up and Dressed in..your pyjamas explored the shock, disbelief and denial among the first and second class passengers.  There was the haunting number sung by Isidor and Ida Strauss (Dudley Rogers and Judith Street) and the moving reflection by Mr Andrews (Greg Castiglioni) in Mr Andrew's Vision.  We listened to the very poignant The Foundering when the survivors had witnessed what had happened.

The most emotional moment for me in the musical was when Barrett (James Austen-Murray), Bride (Matthew Crowe), Charles Clark (Nadim Naaman) and company singing We'll Meet Tomorrow during the ship's evacuation to the lifeboats.  It was very moving, emotive and poignant.

I felt nothing but awesome respect for the incredible creative team.  Firstly, Yeston and Stone for the story, music and lyrics which were powerful, passionate and emotional.  There was the perfect direction by Thom Sutherland and the musical equivalent by Mark Aspinall and the six piece orchestra.  A big thanks to Danielle Tarento, Producer and Casting Director who has chosen a strong and talented cast which prompted me to book to see Titanic in the first place.

I absolutely love the theatre space at Southwark Playhouse.  We were sat around the space and I personally felt part of the action which happened centrally in the space.  It is certainly a different experience to the traditional staging.  I liked how they kept the use of props to a minimum but were very effective in telling the story.  The costumes worn were appropriate to the Edwardian era and the sailing of the Titanic.  Credit is given to David Woodhead, set and costume designer, whose work linked nicely with the good lighting and sounding by Howard Hudson and Andrew Johnson.

Titanic was amazing! I loved this production and the musical is one of the most moving theatrical pieces I've ever seen.  I've experienced one emotional journey which had begun with excitement and excitement until the very end of Act One.  In Act Two I felt panic, disbelief and poignancy.  A mixture of emotions all around!  Titanic is a musical I highly recommend for any theatregoer.  Sadly, this production has closed now but I do hope there could a replica of this production either transferred to the West End or on a UK Tour.

Two reviews on this Titanic production I highly recommend are Ignited By A Dream and Thoughts of a Blue Eyed Girl.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Glee Club - CAST, Doncaster

I've heard about CAST, Doncaster's exciting new venue on the news.  The report about it was enough to prompt me to see something at CAST soon as it's opened.  I close The Glee Club, a song-filled comedy about a group of miners who like to sing.  The play is set locally in Edlington, South Yorkshire.  I personally could connect with similar communities with a proud mining history but in West Yorkshire.

I arrived at CAST just with enough time to collect my ticket at the box office before taking my seat for the anticipated play.  The Glee Club is written by Richard Cameron who was inspired by Frank Vernon's Pride and Poverty which linked memories of the Mexborough miners.  Cameron wanted to focus on the mining community as a whole in the play.

1962 was chosen for the play because it marked a time when music was facing a big change and how social attitudes began shifting through the Swinging SixtiesThe Glee Club explored the lives of six miners who were members.  The miners during the play began to involuntary questions community norms including relationships. gender, class and other social issues that mattered to them.  Colin (Brett Lee Roberts) was aspired to become a musician and convinced the audience that there's a life beyond mining.  It's likely that it was from listening to artists on the radio who came from the working class.

The issues raised in the play was the beginning of the dramatic social changes, which came in effect in the late 1960s, and how attitudes changed towards feminism, sexuality, relationships, individualism which were of contrast before.  It was a poignant reminder, at the time, how the changes affected the communities forever.  Today, there are community and voluntary organisations who are commissioned to work in partnership in the communities and ensure that community cohesion continues.  It is evident the cohesion still existed in the communities who supported one another in the miners' strike in the 1980s.

The cast of Richard Standing (Jack), David Westbrook (Phil), Martin Callaghan (Scobie), Tony Bell (Walt), Russell Richardson (Bant) and Brett Lee Roberts (Colin) were exceptional playing the members of the miners' Glee Club.  Each actor did a great job portraying the individual personalities and the encounters one faced in their lives. Colin (Brett Lee Roberts) gave an insight into the play with his narration.  Also a big thanks to the production team including the direction by Esther Richardson.

The Glee Club shared with us an insight of how the mining communities share and celebrate their heritage and social history through music and singing at their local club.  The singing reflected to me how the miners looked and looking at life amongst the changes such as Que Sera, Sera...whatever will be, will be and You Always Hurt The One You Love.

 CAST, Waterdale, Doncaster

The CAST opened in September 2013 in Waterdale, Doncaster's Civic Quarter.  The new venue will increase Doncaster's profile for the arts and this welcoming building no doubts offer something for everyone.  CAST is ambitious through spreading the word far and wide and urging one to be a #cast of 1000s.  I hope the CAST will no doubt inspire the town with the opportunities the venue will now offer.  Please check the website for their forthcoming productions.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Heritage Open Days - 2013

Apart from visiting the Leeds Grand Theatre (see separate post), I took the opportunity to visit two East Leeds churches near to where I live.  Both churches opened its doors as part of Heritage Open Days which ran over the second week in September.

I'm proud of the heritage in this country and also like to support the Open Days every year.  There is usually a lot of heritage gems on our doorsteps and usually free to visit.  There is no need to travel far and wide to visit specific 'heritage buildings'.

St Wilfred's Church

This Anglican church was built in 1939 and designed by Randall Wells. Intensive refurbishment including a new roof took place recently and completed in August 2013.  What I loved about the church is the natural lighting and spacing which are reflected in the by the high stainless windows. 

Inside St Wilfred's Church, East Leeds

The interior features such as the impressive woodwork shown in the chancel, the seating and choir stalls.  The curtail compliments nicely with the chancel's woodwork.  There were some furnishings and paintings such as St Wilfred's statue by Eric Gill and sculptures from Irene Payne.

I had the initial impression that it was an older church than what it is with its wooden spire which I've been seeing on daily basis whilst out and about in East Leeds.  The spire reminds me of the churches I've seen in Scandinavia. I enjoyed my visit to this interesting church.

St Mary's Parish Church

The following morning I visited St Mary's Parish Church.  It was my first time inside the Anglican church even if I've passed it many times on my travels.  I was glad to have had the opportunity to look inside.  The Grade I listed Medieval Church was built in the 15th Century although it was suggested an earlier church, a Saxon one, was built.  However there is no evidence confirming this even if there was a discovery of a Saxon font on the site.

St Mary's had connections with the Irwin family, who then owned the Temple Newsam Estate, and John Smeaton who is known as the 'Father of civil engineering'.  There are memorials in honour of the Irwin Family, Sir Arthur Ingram and Frances Isabelle Heir Gordon.  The highlight must have been looking at Smeaton's memorial.  I remember studying about him in my Humanities degree and also climbed up Smeaton Tower (originally known as Eddystone Lighthouse) in Plymouth.   His involvement in the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions from the end of the 18th Century was recognised and he was a regular worshiper at the church.

 Smeaton's Memorial and Grave Stone, St Mary's Parish Church

I enjoyed looking round the church.  The church has undergone a number of restorations, spanning over the past three centuries.  The restorations included essential repairs and the restoration of the organ at the southside of the church.  It was lovely hearing music being played by the organist whilst I was looking around.  I learnt how important the church's Lychgate is with it being dedicated to those in the Parish who served in both World Wars.

Inside St Mary's Church

Thanks to the warm welcome and friendliness to the church's hosts.  With their helpful and insightful knowledge, I got to appreciate the cultural, religious and social history of the church and the key people involved.

If you require further information about future Heritage Open Days please visit their website.

Heritage Open Day at my Favourite Theatre!

*Third place I visited over the Heritage Open Days*

I'm a regular visitor to the Grand Theatre and visiting their Open Heritage Days are no exception (part of the Heritage Open Days held between 12th-15th September 2013).

Opera North

Opera North Performance at the Emerald Grand Hall

I arrived around 11.00am and just in time to listen to Bibi Heal, a soprano and singing on behalf of Opera North, a selection of arias which were accompanied by three musicians.  I briefly met Bibi after her enjoyable performances.  She is currently touring with an opera company and performing at a number of venues.


Auditorium and Stage at Leeds Grand Theatre

I next joined the Heritage Talk where I learnt more about the early days of the Grand and the recent restoration project. Afterwards, sitting in the Stalls, I had fun following the lighting spots on the stage and above which created photo opportunities.  I think I spent half my time altering the focus and lighting on my camera phone!

Northern Ballet

The highlight of the day, for me, must be the Creating a Production talk by Northern Ballet.  The company's learning team went through the technical and creative processes for creating a production on stage.  I now appreciate how much planning, creating and execution are involved in order for us to see a ballet on stage.  I was in awe with the statistics shared for their productions past and present.  

To be honest, I'm not a big ballet fan but I do make exception for Northern Ballet's contemporary and innovative approaches.  Their present and past artistic directors share a strong belief that the stories told on stage must mean something to anyone, anywhere.  The learning team shared to us that productions incorporate issues which are of social importance then and also of today.   It was interesting to see a video showing dancers who explored their roles through vocalising and creating movements during rehearsals.

I thoroughly enjoyed the talk.  I'm now making plans to book their forthcoming production, Cinderella, in December.  Please check out the Northern Ballet's website for more information about the company and forthcoming productions.

After the talk it was time to leave but I was glad to have supported the Grand's Heritage Open Day.  Looking forward to the next Open Day next year!  I urge all my theatre fan friends to visit the Leeds Grand Theatre whether it is to see a show or participate in a future Heritage Open Day.  To find out what's on at the Grand, please check out their website.

Howard Assembly Room
Pride of Place, Leeds Grand Theatre