Masculine dancing dominates this month’s tales of human bondage, with inspired use of the form to confront the horror of racism and the minor distress of office tedium, and creative choreography evoking machismo at a US army base in the advent of Pearl Harbour.
Best of the Month: November 2013
The Scottsboro Boys, 4-star average: Young Vic to 21 Dec
Susan Stroman’s restaged production of the final Kander and Ebb musical gained a consistent 4 stars from all nine major pro reviewers.
A notorious case from the 1930s Deep South is ironically presented as a ‘minstrel show’. As the form’s racist perspective gradually turns on its head, Paul Taylor (Independent) explains, “the black performers get to create gleeful caricatures of a gallery of bigoted whites.”
Some aired misgivings about what Kate Bassett (Arts Desk) called this “poetic licence”. Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) acknowledged: “The combination of a distasteful artform, racial intolerance and perky dance routines is guaranteed to make us squirm.” Michael Coveney (What’s on Stage) outlined the most common concern: “There’s hardly a moment’s let-up in two uninterrupted hours, creating a sort of vivid kangaroo-court effect that doesn’t have the musical variety or impact of Chicago, nor the sex appeal.”
Most responses were on balance enthusiastic. Michael Billington (Guardian) was among those praising the “wittily inventive direction and choreography” and there was particular admiration for a song-and-tap routine about the electric chair, which even a disappointed Quentin Letts (Mail) admitted “cut into one’s heart”.
The cast, with a multitasking ensemble of five from Broadway, was variously hailed as “superb”, “exceptionally strong” and “phenomenal”, while everyone singled out new lead Kyle Scatliffe as “extraordinarily charismatic”, “imposing” or “profoundly affecting.”
Charles Spencer (Telegraph) representatively called it “passionate, original, and at times deeply moving” concluding “though this is the very antithesis of a feel-good musical, there is no mistaking its power, dark wit and indignation.”
Blam!, 4.5-star average: Peacock Theatre to 16 Nov
The West End average for this Edinburgh transfer is based on two new glowing reviews, building on the raft it received up north in August.
Creator and star Kristjan Ingimarsson, with three others, creates a stifling office atmosphere before gradually, and wordlessly, transforming petty work rivalries into a blockbuster movie-style conflict.
Clement Crisp (FT) described “a stunningly funny and anarchic fantasy” created through “a dazzling combination of acrobatics, mime (…funny, wildly dangerous and irresistible) and beady-eyed social comment. The office becomes a battleground, a jungle, outer space.”
Will Stone (What’s on Stage) described: “a high-octane series of impressive acrobatics…with Matrix-style slow motion reflexes, ninja moves, leaps, rolls, dives and even dangling from the overhead lights…almost every piece of office equipment is imaginatively used in some way.”
Crisp declared: “the gradual collapse of order, of proper behaviour, the fierce onslaughts of fantasy, of cinematic jokes, the prodigious physical resourcefulness of the cast and inventiveness of the staging, are blissfully, jaw-crackingly funny, and wildly true as the inner selves of these four men are revealed.”
The Edinburgh reviews supply a missing female perspective, with several worrying about who would clear up the resulting mess. Daisy Bowie-Sell (Time Out) acknowledged “It’s true, the show smacks slightly of ‘boys-with-toys’, but when it’s as fun as this, who cares?”
Stone agreed “some may find this all a bit too laddish” but concluded: “with such death-defying acts of agility and strength, Ingimarsson… deserves high praise for blurring the lines between dance, drama and comedy in such an original way.”
From Here to Eternity, 3.3-star average: Shaftesbury Theatre to Apr 26 2014
Most pros gave an ambivalent 3 stars to this heavily advertised musical about the life and loves of three US soldiers in 1941 Hawaii.
More enthusiastic, Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph), enjoyed its ‘pacy’ direction and ‘crafty’ design, (contrasting giant postcards with jaded reality), and praised its “potent sense of atmosphere” ascribing that to “the sight and sound of militarised machismo – Rice makes GI grunts part of the percussive furniture, while choreographer Javier de Frutos turns grinding dormitory routines and training drills into a sinuous spectacle of synchronised physicality.”
There were no complaints about the singing, but many found the music, as Michael Coveney put it, “more serviceable than inspired”. Edward Seckerson (Arts Desk) elaborated: “too much of this score dabbles in style rather than inhabiting it” resulting in “a kind of generalised popiness. …Tim Rice’s lyrics are generally strong. But the ballads are weak and fail to deliver the requisite emotional punch.”
Of the leads, all agreed with Cavendish: “Handsome, sweet-voiced Robert Lonsdale shines brightest”. Sackerson was typical in finding Ryan Sampson “sweetly tragic” with “winning appeal”, but ‘Pop Idol’ Darius’ was generally judged ‘corny’, or ‘bland’. Hitchings noted his “virile baritone” but found his acting “a little stiff”.
Overall verdicts ranged from “huge disappointment” through “harmless nonsense” to “a spunky effort”, and there was similar dissent about its West End chances. Cavendish judged it no classic but continued: “it dares to speak to our inner grown-up about frustrated yearning, fleeting romance and pluck.”