Taj Express, The Peacock Theatre, London WC2

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Taj Express is a jukebox musical with a Bollywood movie theme. About half the music comes from hits of the Indian film industry, half is written by musical director Abhijit Vaghani, who has composed the background score to over 50 films himself. My knowledge of this area is scant, to say the least, so I only recognised a couple of the songs, but this took nothing away from my enjoyment of the show.

This show is basically a set of twenty four dance routines with short breaks in between for the dancers to change costume and regain their breath. None of the dancers have spoken lines, there is a kind of narrator whose job it is to join the dances together, to propel the story forward and to inject some comedy into the proceedings.

There is a tradition in jukebox musicals for the storyline to be thin. It is basically a hook on which to hang the songs and dance routines. Here the story practically transparent, although cleverly they make this into a joke, so we can laugh at how unlikely a tale it is, and to be fair, the story is not what the audience have come to see.

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The dancing is spectacular. This show is an exhilarating riot of colour and energy. The variety in the music is surprising, there are elements of tango, salsa, mixed up with bhangra and rock. The opening of the second act even had a techno rave feel with its ultra-violet lights and dayglo costumes and props. Hiten Shah and Tanvi Patil play Arjun and Kareena, the shows romantic leads, their job is to relate the narrator’s story through their dance routines, a job they accomplish with considerable charm and allure. The ensemble as a whole are dazzling, full of acrobatic tumbling, gymnastic break dancing and twisting somersaults, their dynamic vigour is infectious and the audience is clapping along enthusiastically towards the end of may of the routines.

The set is simple but effective, a white backdrop leaves the stage completely clear for the main event, and pictures projected onto it provide the various settings in which the dancing is taking place. Bipin Tanna deserves special mention as the costume designer. They are a highlight of the show. To say they are bright and glittering is an understatement, they flow and shimmer with the dance moves, enhancing the movement of the dancers. They are vibrant and vivid, yet elegant and graceful when this is called for in the dance.

Taj Express is a show that you have to allow yourself to enjoy. It has elements of pantomime, don’t overthink – just let the pageant that unfolds onstage envelop you and  become swept up in the spectacle. By the end of the show much of the audience was up dancing in the aisles, a testament to the appeal of a most enjoyable evening.

 

Strictly Ballroom, Piccadilly Theatre, London W1.

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Strictly Ballroom is a crowd pleasing juke box musical. It certainly has a lot of good things going for it. The film, on which is based, is a classic Australian indie comedy of the early ’90s and it is wonderfully odd and funny. The songs are popular upbeat singalong tunes that the audience will know and love. The cast is great and the director and choreographer have some great musicals on their CV.

The show has been rewritten for the stage and a new character, a narrator, has been added. The idea is brilliant, he sings the songs, adds perspective to the larger than life characters and propels the action along with some knowing repartee. Matt Cardle plays this part, Wally Strand, and he does a good job. He has a great voice and he is nicely self deprecating. However there are 35 different songs in this 2 hour show, many of them delivered in two, three or more pieces. He rarely get to sing more than one bar without stopping. It would have been lovely to listen to a complete song in one go, instead of hearing them broken up into fragments.

The story has not been changed from the film and is simple but solid. The difference is that, in the film it was mostly played straight and the characters were unintentionally amusing. Here we have cartoon-like caricatures played for laughs and the comedy feels strained at times. There are funny lines and the caricatures are comical. The acting is  good, Matthew Stevens and Anna Francolini’s over the top performances as Doug and Shirley Hastings were both enjoyable.

Jonny Labey and Zizi Strallen are both good dancers and excellent as Scott and Fran. The ensemble look good, but the stage at the Piccadilly is too small fit the entire company  and the group set pieces feel cramped and uncomfortable.

The set is sparse and effective, it needs to be because of the lack of space. The costumes are wonderfully sparkly and camp. “Strictly Ballroom, the Musical” has been damned with faint praise, the show is fun and the audience gave it a warm reception. It is a good show, but the sum does not quite live up to all its parts. I liked it but the expectations are high and, in London’s West End, the competition is fierce.

 
 

Kiss Me Kate, Opera North, London Coliseum, London WC2

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Cole Porter’s 1948 musical, Kiss Me Kate is a complex show, some of its numbers are  classic Broadway showtunes, while others have a light opera edge. It has complicated, full company dance routines as well as individual virtuoso displays. It also has a couple of good comedy roles that require great timing and delivery. On top of this, the Coliseum itself, has a big stage that needs a large company to fill. All in all, this is a show, in a venue, which will test every part of the company putting it on, to the fullest degree. I have to say that Opera North have passed this test with honours.

The two operatic leads, Quirijn de Lang and Stephanie Corley, as Fred/Petruchio and Lilli/Kate both have splendid voices, suited to their roles.  Zoe Rainey and Alan Burkitt, as Lois and Billy, carry the more standard musical numbers perfectly. Each of the four of them has at least one great song to show of their respective talent. Lois has possibly the most famous songs in “Always true to you in my fashion” and “Tom, Dick or Harry” but Kate’s “I hate men” and Petruchio’s “Where is the life that I led” are really great songs that show of their vocal abilities. The show’s biggest song, of course, “Too Darn Hot” is sung by the chorus, and the dancers, particularly Aiesha Pease and Stephane Anelli, deliver a truly show stopping performance to this number.

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Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin play the comedy roles of first and second Gunman. They work very well together, their interaction is excellent and they make the most of their comedy duet “Brush up your Shakespeare” – a song more full of puns than I had previously realised. The company as a whole is excellent and you realise that this is going to be a show full of movement and vigour, right from the first song of “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”.

Kiss Me Kate is a big show, and this is a big full-on production of it. The costumes are bright and lavish.  The choreographer has a tough job, with so many people on stage at once, however the dance routines are vivacious and have lovely shape. The set design needs ingenuity too, and is very clever at swapping from front of stage to back of house in seconds.

The director, Jo Davies, has taken the bold decision not to update the show in any obvious way. At times, it felt like you were actually watching a show made in the 1940s, giving the show an interesting post-war period feel. The tap routine, in particular, had a dated, black and white movie quality, which suited the production very nicely. This is a lush and exuberant production of a distinguished show and it fully deserved the love it received from the packed audience at curtain down.

 

Everybody's Talking about Jamie, Apollo Theatre, London

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All the publicity that goes with “Everybody’s talking about Jamie” mentions what an  uplifting feel good story line it has, and that it taps into the current zeitgeist, and to be fair they are right but, really it has so much more than just that.
The songs are brilliant, “It means beautiful” will surely win an award for best new song in a musical. “He’s my boy”, “Work of Art” and “If I met myself again” are also wonderful, I think Dan Gillespie Sells is going to be a huge success as a songwriter for musicals. The lyrics are lovely too and are written by Tom Macrae, so perhaps this is a new partnership to look out for.
The whole cast is great. Obviously John McCrea is excellent as Jamie, a strong voice and a big stage presence. There are also outstanding performances from Josie Walker as his Mum, who has two big songs and a spectacular voice with which to deliver them, and from Lucie Shorthouse, who has an endearing part as his BFF, Pritti. I enjoyed Phil Nichol’s portrayal of Hugo Battersby too.
I also really liked the choreography, it is vibrant and up to date, break dancing with a hint of Justin Beiber video. The set design is good as well, a great mixture of simple, clever and efficient. She show finishes very well, the audience loved it and left the theatre wanting more.
I thoroughly enjoyed this show and I hope it is a huge success!

Girl from the North Country, Old Vic Theatre, London

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Girl from the North Country contains three or four intertwining stories. These are slight, almost sketches really, but are beautifully told so that we care about the people we see on stage. It contains about twenty songs from Dylan’s back catalogue. These are used, in  an abstract way, to accentuate the drama rather than to move the narrative forward. It would be misleading to call this a musical, it is more a play with musical accompaniment.

The prose and the songs complement each other very well. Given the quality of the cast, the strength of the acting is no surprise. The singing, orchestration and choreography are the revelation. There are some amazing voices in the ensemble. Shirley Henderson and Jack Shalloo, in particular, shock when they sing, but every song is delivered well. The impact of a downtrodden, beaten character suddenly opening their vocal cords is not to be underestimated. Even the songs that I already knew, appeared to be given new life in the context of the play.

The reception of the audience was good, it is not too often that the whole audience stands at the end. I enjoyed this show, Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan are a combination that go together very well.

School Of Rock, New London Theatre, London, 2017

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School of Rock’s plot has more holes than a polo mint factory. I almost had to talk myself into suspending my disbelief. However, when I did, this show has funny lines, great tongue-in-cheek, rock songs, and some very talented children.
The opening song “I’m too hot for you” is a clever parody and “Stick it to the man” and “School of Rock” are crowd pleasing, audience participation, stadium rock pastiches. There are other good songs too “You’re in the Band” is catchy and I liked the “Faculty Quadrille” which has recognisable Lloyd Webber moments.
David Finn is likeable and irritating in equal measures as Dewey, but this is as it meant to be. The plot involves him living out his teenage fantasy by changing a class of nerdy kids into 1980s style rock stars. The story is fun, ridiculous and there is a big enjoyable finale, where the crowd goes wild. The children play all their own instruments and their acting and singing is excellent.
This show is a real crowd pleaser, the whole audience was involved by the end and there was a standing ovation. The cynic in me saw a lack of narrative, did not see the ending as happy and felt a bit manipulated. However, I took a lesson that I learned from the “Book of Mormon” song “Turn it Off” and did just that.
Put away your critical eye, embrace your inner teenager, and you will enjoy it too!

An American in Paris, Dominion Theatre, London, 2017

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Everything about this production is spectacular.
The 1950 film, on which it is based, won 7 Academy awards. George Gershwin won one for the best score, the stage show takes this and adds some of the best of his back catalogue; “The Man I Love”, “But not for me” and “They can’t take that away from me”.  They are beautifully sung by Haydn Oakley and Zoe Rainey.
Alan Jay Lerner won the Oscar for best story. This has been kept with just a little more detail added. It also won the awards for best costume and best sets. The costumes here are beautiful, postwar in style and Paris elegant. The sets are wonderfully inventive, they could be Jerry Mulligans drawings brought to life. They are outlines of the Paris skyline being sketched on blank backdrops as they are moved into place, a beautiful concordance of the 1950s and the 21st century.
Wonderful as all of the above is, the real stars of this show are the choreography and the principal dancers. Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope are both classically trained ballet dancers, he in New York and she in London. The dance routines are dazzling. The show opens with a 7 minute number where Fairchild arrives on the scene as Jerry Mulligan, full of vitality.  Cope’s part as Lise builds more slowly and she comes fully into her own in the second act.
The director and choreographer is Christopher Wheeldon. The final numbers of the show are nothing short of inspirational. “I’ll build a stairway to Paradise” is a classic 50’s, exhibitionist, camp show stopper. This is followed by the beautiful ballet inspired “An American in Paris” equally good, yet completely different.
This is a joyous reimagining of a classic Hollywood musical and, as you can probably tell, it stole my heart.
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