Out of the Darkness

Post-production review of performing in DMT’s production of Jekyll & Hyde.

Feature photo of Spider and some of the Prostitutes from the Red Rat

Show week is always an intense experience, which is usually a mixture of emotions, adrenalin and endurance.  The people around you are so important in making that experience not only bearable but fun as well.  I have to take my show hat off to Devizes Musical Theatre (DMT) for the way things went.

Organisation What director Matt Dauncey did along with MD Susan Braunton and the production team was to organise everything in advance so that all the players knew what they were doing. We were properly prepared before the dress rehearsal and just had to adjust to wearing costumes and having an orchestra.

Performance Buzz The other vital ingredient that was needed was energy.  The directors encouraged us, and the performers were supportive of each other. That meant we were halfway there. The other half of the energy came from the large audiences that attended and brought fresh eyes and reactions to each performance.

Results Having gone through a tech rehearsal and two dress rehearsals (one for each lead actor playing Jekyll/Hyde) the performances went without any major hitches.  The energy didn’t let up either.  By the end, we were still improving and the leads managed to avoid burn-out.

Memorable Moments 1) In one scene, Emma (played by Naomi Ibbetson) managed to call Jekyll ‘Herry’, which is the name of her real-life husband!  Luckily the performers got through the scene without making the moment awkward.

2) Lord Savage has a line before he dies where he informs Sir Danvers of his next move.  In the script it is “Aberdeen actually, I’ll been in the Highland club if you need me”. Each night Phil Greenaway came up with a different place and club name.  His fictional tour took him to Bristol, Derby, Cardiff, Salisbury and a Yorkshire village where one of the cast members lives.

3) The Red Rat is the Brothel stage set where Jekyll (and later Hyde) spends time with Lucy Harris the prostitute.  During the number, ‘Bring on the Men’, several prostitutes dance whilst potential male clients gawk and make dirty comments before being joined by the dancers.  Over the course of the evenings, one particular group upped the acting pretty much every night.  By Saturday, I dare say the advisory 14+ age range restriction was well earned!

Chorus Activity It was a delight to be in the chorus for this show.  Although the musical is mainly focussed on the three leading roles, there is still a surprising amount to do. Façade and Murder, Murder are very good company numbers.  Bring on the Men, the Engagement Party scene and the Wedding provides the chorus with actions and dance routines.  There are also three or four off-stage choruses which are a demanding sing and add to the atmosphere for Jekyll and Lucy’s onstage struggles.

Conclusion With such a welcoming group this was a rare treat.  The comradery offstage was matched by the dedication on it.  What’s even more surprisingly is that whenever someone wasn’t required onstage, they still turned up to rehearsals, including the leads. This commitment continued until the end; Jekyll #2 (Andrew Curtis) performed in the Saturday matinee which allowed Jekyll#1 (Gareth Lloyd) to take a much-deserved rest, but he still stayed to watch the show. Jekyll #2 only had the one show, but Andrew was fully involved throughout the run, not only as understudy, but as the Priest in Act 2 each night and as a backstage helper.

I’ll miss the positive atmosphere that brought the group together.  It gave the week momentum and kept the energy up.  I’ll certainly be interested to see what shows DMT do next.

Escape to the Dark Side

Preview as DMT prepares to performs Jekyll and Hyde

Photo taken from DMT publicity

History

It was originally a book published in 1886 by Robert Louis Stevenson called The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in which London lawyer Gabriel John Utterson investigates the strange link between his friend Dr Jekyll and the evil Mr Hyde.  The novella was a great success and a year later it was made into a play adapted by Thomas Sullivan and lead actor Richard Mansfield and premiered in Boston, USA.  A year later it made it to London, but unfortunately just before the first Jack the Ripper murder occurred just streets away, which is perhaps why it wasn’t a success this side of the Atlantic.  Skip forward in time to 1997 when Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Briscusse and Steve Cuden created a musical adaptation that toured the USA before making it to Broadway.

 Dark Drama

This is a show that starts off dark and gets darker.  There is a film noir feel to the proceedings as the morality of Londoners and all people is peered at through dirt-flecked spectacles.  In these surroundings we find the morally-upstanding Dr Jekyll desperate to cure his father’s sanity through radical scientific experiments. Unfortunately the corrupt and vulgar board of governors does not allow this to happen.  In his desperation he becomes his own test victim, and in doing so brings out the worst in himself.

 Musical Style

The show’s emotional content and flow is brilliantly enhanced by the music. There is a little of Les Miserables in the style, and a little of the Phantom about Jekyll and Hyde.  The chorus provide the voice of Londoners who are left reeling by a series of murders, and also the occupants of a seedy brothel. There are several excellent character parts too, including the despicable board of governors.  The female leads Emma Carew and Lucy Harris provide a delightful light and dark contrast, because of their high and low positions in society respectively.  The part of Jekll and Hyde is a crazy leading role, requiring plenty of both stamina and acting prowess.

There are some lovely moments throughout the musical, but what I believe the musical does best, is the duets; between Dr Jekyll and Emma, Mr Hyde and Lucy, Emma and Lucy and finally (and most bizarrely) a one-man duet between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde!

 DMT Production 2018

It is a treat to be in the DMT chorus for this because having watched their previous three shows, I know what an enthusiastic and positive group DMT can be. They always seem to be able to attract new members to what is already a loyal and talented group of performers. For this production they are directed by Matt Dauncey, who I have previously performed with.  What has really impressed me about Matt is his excellent management of people.  He has praised the group in rehearsals for their positive effort and he has often thanked and talks with individuals as well.  On top of this, he is surprisingly organised, which is not always the case with directors.  Perhaps he gets this from Peter Nelson, whom he assisted during the award-winning DMT production of Fiddler on the Roof.  It is a great comfort as a performer to know that you are covering all the material sufficiently and to see what is coming up in future rehearsals.

For the lead roles Gareth Lloyd and Andrew Curtis (who will understudy and perform the Saturday matinee) have an abundance of stage craft and imagination which is needed to carry off this duel-character part.  The parts of Emma Carew and Lucy Harris will be played by Naomi Ibbetson and Laura Deacon respectively.  This is an excellent choice of casting as they have such wonderful but such contrasting voices.  Naomi’s is pure and bright whilst Laura’s has so many tones and is far more earthy.

The production is at Dauntsey’s School outside of Devizes, Wiltshire from 11-14th April.  It should be an excellent show and I thoroughly recommend experiencing it. Expect dark drama, yes, but also be surprised with yourself for having enjoyed it!

For more information go to http://www.devizesmusicaltheatre.co.uk/

Reviewing Sondheim’s Follies

The Art of Staying in Character

Cover image from the National Thetre’s 2017 production of Sondheim’s Follies

I had the pleasure of watching Dominic Cooke’s professional production of Sondheim’s musical Follies this month at the National Theatre in London. As a spectacle and a production it was astoundingly good. The very open set comprised of the skeleton of a full-sized New York building (the Follies Theatre), which was centred on a rotating stage with the audience around the outside of approximately two-thirds of the stage. It meant that we could see everything, and although one room was always the centre of attention, the other players could almost always be seen, especially when the scenes were being rotated.

These were excellent performers both in terms of acting and singing, but with such a lot going on all the time, they also had to be very well directed to know where and when to move as well as what they should be doing. There was one lovely moment where the older performers decided to put on one of their old dance routines and their younger ‘ghost’ selves in their glamourous outfits also danced the routine to the same music. There were many pastiche numbers where performer would either duet with their younger self or the younger ‘ghost’ self would appear in the background strutting as if they were performing the song.  There were also character songs, in which they performers would express their emotions either to themselves (and the audience) or to each other. Again, what made this so impressive was when their ‘ghost’ versions started to listen to the characters and then play out an emotive or nostalgic scene from many years before.  There was an incredible moment, when things got particularly tense, so much so that the older characters started interacting with the ghosts, as if reliving the experience over again.

This brings me to my main observation in terms of performance.  As a member of the audience, I was looking everywhere at the action and was impressed how everyone was always in character. Even when the stage was rotating performers out of sight they would be continuing to dance or interact with their fellow party-goers.  During a song I would find myself distracted by light and movement away from the main characters but this revealed their younger selves watching the performance and strutting as if performing the routine themselves from their heydays.

One final mention has to go to Imelda Staunton, who played the part of Sally Durant Plummer. She gave a heart-felt performance throughout, but at the end of her solo, ‘Don’t look at me’, she maintained a haunted, distant stare throughout the playout music and the applause that followed.  That was the most memorable part of the song for me; it seemed to strengthen the potency of that character in the moment.  Absolutely stunning!

Playing Doctor Bartolo

A post-production review:  Opera with a pinch of improvisation!

Photo courtesy of Dajana Kovac.

It is said that the best way to move on from one project is to start another and that was certainly the case after performing in TITCo’s production of Into the Woods. With Tessitoura’s production of Barber of Seville I had a month to learn the lines and music for the part of Doctor Bartolo.  The production had its difficulties; for starters there are many difficult passages to sing, which at times (especially for the Count and Rosina) was the equivalent of doing vocal gymnastics.  The dialogue lines (replacing the recitative, or sung dialogue) were also adapted and completed with about a month to go.  Finally, the director also had to pull out of the production and so Harry (playing Don Basilio) took on the role of stage director. Thanks to his general direction and character tips the scenes took shape, but the performers still had room to contribute and suggest possible moves and expressions.

These difficulties actually brought out a freedom in the performers.  The best part of being involved in this show was seeing how my fellow performers and I managed to adapt to either someone not remembering a line or trying something different.  Couple that with three very different venues (2 churches and a medieval barn) and every performance was unique.  An example of this was when Sam, who played the Count, wanted to change the joke name he gives my character.  Rather than calling Doctor Bartolo ‘Barbaro’ (Italian for Barbarian) he went with ‘Fartolo’, which makes more sense to English audiences, and got a big laugh on the night!

The final example I will give was certainly not scripted but worked because of how the cast reacted to the situation.  My character is getting a shave. Brendan, playing the barber Figaro, has shaving foam at the ready and is motioning it slowly towards me like a parent would ‘train’ food into their child’s mouth. I reacted by leaning back in my chair… my plastic, basic chair… SNAP.  I hit the floor.  There is an uproar of laughter from the audience.  I, both as a performer and character slowly get up, bewildered, helped by Brendan.  I try to stay in character, blustering, knowing that if I don’t I won’t be able to stop laughing myself.  Meanwhile Rebecca playing Rosina has swiftly replaced the chair.  Finally the Musical Director announces we will go from a certain figure in the score, and we carried on.  Blatantly a gaff had occurred but it was handled beautifully by the cast and the audience loved it.

It was a pleasure to be involved in a production with such on-the-edge energy about it, with such a talented bunch of performers!

 

Playing Doctor Bartolo

This week, I will perform with Tessitoura, a Bristol-based opera company that performs in unique spaces with a small but very talented group of singers and musicians.  This project is Rossini’s masterpiece, The Barber of Seville (1816). It follows the fortunes of The Count Almaviva, Rosina, Doctor Bartolo, Don Basilio to name but a few.  Oh, and a certain barber called Figaro.  This very special opera was based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ French comedy Le Barbier de Seville (1775) and is the first of a trilogy, the second of which – The Marriage of Figaro – was famously adapted into an opera by Mozart (1786).

I play the main villain of the piece, or perhaps more truthfully fodder for the Count’s trickery and Figaro’s scheming.  He is a physician and Rosina’s guardian, but he has grander schemes in mind involving marriage and money. This role appears to be the exact opposite of Enrico in Donizetti’s Il Campanello di Notte (The Night Bell) in which I was a bugs bunny-esque rogue.  Now I am Elmer Fudd!

So what is needed in preparing for the role of the Doctor Bartolo?

The role certainly requires an ability to say things quickly, as with the pitter-patter song, A un dottor dell mia sorte.  Otherwise it requires a mix of comic timing and a hint of malevolence.  But mainly, it is a straight-role, being a yin to the Count’s yang.  If he is outrageous, be grounded, and when the Count is calm, then Doctor Bartolo will no doubt be pacing the stage, raging (again, think Bugs and Fudd).  He is also an older man so I need to modify my behaviour to suit that persona.  I even have a prop (a cane) and a bow tie!

It should be lots of fun. The cast is very talented and Rossini’s music, sublime!  If you are looking for something to do this weekend, then do consider coming along!  http://www.tessitoura.co.uk/  It will be performed in St Matthew’s Church in Kingsdown Bristol, St. Mary’s Church in Stoke Bishop Bristol and the medieval barn in Winterbourne.     It’s also in support of the Above and Beyond charity.

Playing the Baker

A post-production review

Performing the Baker with Teresa Bray as Baker’s Wife and Jemma Brown as the Witch.

The Invitation Theatre Company has completed the show run of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.  So, how did it go?

From an overall perspective I have to congratulate everyone involved on what has been a tremendous undertaking and has provided local audiences the opportunity to experience this fairy-tale extravaganza in the intimate setting of the Wharf Theatre. As it turns out, a Sondheim musical requires a lot of dedication both musically and dramatically and a lot of hard of hard work has gone into this production.  Then there’s the set, costumes, lighting and sound effects needed to make this fantasy realm come to life.

This production was a journey all of its own.  The director modified the script considerably, making cuts in order to reduce the running length of the show.  This worked but did mean that some plot or character elements were missing.  The cast was guilty of poor attendance thanks to holidays and other show commitments.  This meant there were perhaps only a handful of rehearsals when the entire cast was available before show week.  Another unexpected issue was that our young performer playing Jack could not legally perform the show for 6 nights in a row.  Luckily, a drama student who had previously performed the role was able to learn it in super-quick time.  Finally, this is a very challenging production musically.  Not only are the vocal lines repetitive but with subtle changes each time, some sections are rhythmically and melodically unpredictable.  For ensemble numbers such as the Act I Prologue and ‘Your Fault’ you really have to know everyone else’s part as well as your own.

How did the part of the Baker evolve? During the final rehearsals the director praised my energy during one scene. That stuck with me.  Playing an Everyman character doesn’t lend itself to putting on any particular character traits but it made sense to me to convey his emotions by engaging with them.  So if he is nervous, provide that nervous energy.  If he is joyful, express that joy.  So in a sense, he becomes a focussed version of me rather than a character of his own.

The Baker, like all the characters who venture into the woods, goes on a journey.  It was important, especially with script cuts, to really show changes in his mood or character during the scenes.  In short order, he starts off relatively content, but becomes nervous and cautious when he starts his journey into the woods.  When he starts retrieving items to make the witch’s potion he becomes emboldened.  This is an important change as the Baker’s Wife needs to see the changes in him by the time they sing the duet, ‘It Takes Two’.

In Act 2, the second journey into the woods turns far more serious.  Again, expressing the part with sincerity and energy are key.  The main change here is showing his dependence on his wife before then having to achieve things without her guiding hand. To quote the character:  “It was my wife who really helped.  I depended on her for everything”.  I really liked developing this relationship and made sure that during Act 1 and the first part of Act 2 he can be seen looking to her for reassurance or moral support.

It was a pleasure to perform such pieces as No-one is Alone, Your Fault and No More.  They are beautifully written songs and it was a treat working with my fellow performers to bring this to life.  Thanks to choreography we were set in our positions and could concentrate on expressing and vocalising the characters.

Verdict Into the Woods is deceptively difficult and requires a lot of hard work and focus to pull off. The Baker is no different in that sense. He requires attention throughout the show and doesn’t really have a lot of off-stage time.  For this reason I’m happy the run is over.  It has been a wonderful experience, one I’m delighted to have had, but now it’s time to leave the woods.

Playing the Baker

I first came across Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods when my girlfriend at that time (now my wife) was a student at the University of Bristol.  The University’s musical society was putting it on in the student union building.  The whole experience was new to me, from the venue to the musical to the composer.  This made the whole experience all the stranger but all the more appropriate because the show itself takes the audience and characters alike off the path and into the woods.

What I discovered that night was a mix of well-known fairy tales characters and plots combining with songs full of clever lyrics appropriate to those characters. Although all seemed wrapped up by the interval, the show then began to evolve into something quite different and unexpected from the usual storybook ending.  To quote the musical:

Into the woods, it’s always when You think, at last, you’re through and then, Into the woods you go again, To take another journey.

I was very excited when I heard that one of my regular groups, The Invitation Theatre Company (TITCo), was planning on producing Into the Woods and I was thrilled to be chosen to take on the role of the Baker.  It is a wonderful ensemble piece, with layers of meaning and character development that makes is quite unlike my previous projects of Bizet’s Carmen and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.

So what is needed in preparing for the role of the Baker?

The Baker and the Baker’s Wife is a fable created by James Lapine for this musical.  They are a typical suburban couple wanting to have a child of their own.  It’s through them that we meet the well-known characters of stories, such as Little Red Ridinghood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and Cinderella.  Unlike these fairy tale characters, the Baker and his wife are relatable, as are their wishes of starting a family.

Character note number 1 – Do not make the character too eccentric; there are wolves, witches and princes for that!  The Baker is the antithesis of these strange surroundings.

As a lead character, he has issues but is not so very flawed as the likes of Sweeney Todd or to a lesser extent Billy Bigelow from Carousel.  The Baker’s issues are to do with having lost his parents when he was young.  From a broken past he is trying to do the best he can. Unfortunately he has become over-protective when it comes to his wife and very afraid when his immediate world is under threat.

Character note number 2 – The Baker has a lot of pride and control issues.

Perhaps because of his fear of the unknown and things outside of his control, the idea of being a father not only excites but also terrifies him.  This is surely in part due to his fragile family upbringing. There is also a major argument where he and the other characters blame each other for an unfortunate string of events.

Character note number 3 – The Baker does not deal well with new responsibilities.

The potential difficulty with the Baker is that he is in danger of not being very likeable and risks alienating himself from the audience.  Happily he does have redeeming qualities, such as his determination to do what’s right and some very caring moments with his wife and other characters.

Character note number 4 – Don’t forget to make him amiable and to smile now and again.  He is human, after all.

So in summary, the Baker is the Everyman character in a fantasy world.  He has issues, as we all do.  He has too much pride, is overly protective and shirks responsibility. But he also has a good heart and loves his family dearly.  His journeys into the woods change him and those around him and he grows as a person because of them.

Rehearsing the scenes with the TITCo crew has been great fun and I can’t wait to go into the woods in June.

TITCo’s production of Into the Woods is on at Devizes Wharf Theatre from 5-10th June 2017.

http://www.titco.org.uk/

Playing Escamillo

A post-production review:

Photo from the dress reheasal taken by Stewart McPherson.

So it happened. The dust has settled after an incredible week performing in Bristol Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen.  So, how did it go?

Since March, the part has continued to evolve and my interpretation alter, partly organically but also thanks to input from fellow performers and friends such as Thomas Woods (playing Don Jose), Herbert DesLauriers (choreographer and dancer) Charlie Monk (Director) and John DesLauriers (friend).  Their advice was truly important, just as the time I had to myself to interpret and adapt the part was crucial.  And so let’s see what happened next…

Character Visualisation:

For me, the one word that represents Escamillo is ‘Focus’.  He has had to believe and demonstrate that he is the best bull fighter to earn his reputation.  He then wonders through the mountains alone and to the bandit camp, all to win Carmen’s heart.  This is one very driven and confident man!!

I still envisioned singled-minded modern footballers such as Ibrahimovic, but also Christiano Ronaldo, who seems to believe first and foremost that winning and personal image mattered most of all.  I would also add to that mix, the character Stacee Jaxx from the musical and movie ‘Rock of Ages’.

In this, the world-weary character has become a stereotype of a rock and roll star unable to escape what his fans expect of him.  His legend precedes him wherever he goes, so much so that he barely needs to react and those around him still respond wildly.  This last visualisation came when working with the rest of the cast and using trying to create the character’s physical attributes suggested by Herbert. For him, less movement in general added to his persona and emphasised any grand gesture he made.

Character Physical Adaptation:

John mentioned that it is easy to over-analyse this character.   In a sense, you cannot overplay him.  He is an all-testosterone alpha-male action hero.  I freely admit I could never reach those heights, and I do not have Escamillo’s confidence or drive to do so.  I used the brilliant reactions of the chorus to build on the character’s ego, but had to find another way to bring him life.  Herbert’s advice was brilliant in this way.  He talked about how to walk, with chest and libido leading the way. Standing tall and keeping gestures to a minimum.  When I continued to have problems adapting however, he saved his best advice to last –   only do one thing at a time.  This means when he walks, he walks.  When he uses a hand to gesture, he is expressing one thing, when he turns his body, he is turning.  This gave the character extra gravitas.

One final help was viewing the excellent photos taken by Stewart Mcpherson.  I looked through and in some photos I could see Escamillo whilst in others I saw a generic principle on Broadway with shining eyes and a wide grin that felt totally inappropriate!  From this I modified my on-stage actions.

Character Vocal Adaptation:

This was the area I was least worried about.  I could sing the part already and as John said, if you concentrate on the character the voice will take care of itself.  What I needed to work on was projection.  I was given some great tips by Thomas.  There are exercises I worked on to improve supporting my voice, but visually this all about focusing on getting a personal message to someone in the backrow of the theatre.

The Good:

I feel like the character evolved before and during the performance week and had a stage presence. Thanks go to my other performers for providing me with the reactions to build from. It gave me the flow I needed to enjoy the role and I came off the stage buzzing every time!   The greatest moment came after the final performance when I was asked to pose for a picture with two members of the children’s chorus. The idea that I have helped inspire them into perhaps performing again gives me great joy!

The ‘Oops’ factor:

Apart from minor moments, faults such as my large size 12G feet continuing to look a little penguin-like I have two confessions make.  Firstly, I do not condone using bathroom cleaning wipes on your face!  I have learned (did there really need to be a lesson?) that this is not healthy and have been treating my face kindly ever since whilst the burn and peeling subsides.

Secondly, on the final night after leaving the smugglers’ camp I tried to exit the stage but could not find the opening to the curtains.  After a moment’s panic I crawled underneath.  I hopefully didn’t break any audience member’s spell!