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 Hamilton (West End)

Rise Up!

Every so often, there comes a musical whose popularity, originality and style sets it apart and it defines a decade as well as transcending its own time. Think the grand epics of Les Mis and Phantom in the 1980s, the gritty, bohemian hit Rent in the 1990s, or the green and yellow dazzle and wit of Wicked in the 00’s.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical was created in a perfect storm.  It was written during a progressive, enlightened time in US politics but soon after Hamiltons rise to fame, this story of America’s founding fathers feels like a rebuke to America’s current political turmoil.  Not only does it seamlessly combines hip hop with more traditional musical styles but it tells a historic drama but with color-blind casting. This is today’s America telling the story of the birth of their nation.  Unlike most of the classics previously mentioned, the staging here is minimal with just a balcony and two rotating circles in the floor.  The drama, then, is left to the characters to tell, and boy, do they tell it!

There was an incredible buzz for my wife and I being in the audience so near the beginning of the West End run and on Alexander Hamilton’s birthday no less (he would have been 263, in case you’re wondering).  Fans either booked a long ways in advance or paid high prices to be able to see this show so tickets were not bought on a whim.  In fact, we had the distinct feeling that the vast majority of the audience knew the songs and the lyrics already.  As the house lights dimmed, the first immense cheer went up from the crowd. Seeing the songs being played out in front of our eyes was a joyous occasion, the soundtrack having prepared and whetted our appetite.  There was an almighty cheer after the line “Immigrants (We get the job done)!” – Well done, London!

The hits came thick and fast.  The energy of My Shot was incredible.  The Schuyler Sisters kept the excitement levels at max.  You’ll Be Back changed the tone to joyous comedy before the heart-wrenching emotion of Satisfied.  The first half was relentless and absorbing as Hamilton fought alongside Washington in the War of Independence, and ended aptly with the song Non-Stop.

The second half continued to tell the life of Alexander Hamilton, but at this stage

his story becomes more personal and political.  The energy is more sporadic but the telling no less engrossing with comedy and tragedy each taking their turns and including some clever character swaps for the actors.  The finale is beautifully poignant and thought provoking, leaving a positive after-taste.

So would I recommend seeing it?  Emphatically yes!!  Book when you can, or if you’re feeling lucky, there is a daily lottery for tickets which would costs the winners £20 each.  Finally, I want to mention some of the players before the Broadway soundtrack colors my memory of the experience:

  • Jamael Westman as Alexander Hamilton is relatively inexperienced in the West End but took his shot with both hands giving a young, scrappy and hungry performance.  Hamilton would be proud!
  • Giles Terera as Aaron Burr had probably the hardest job in the musical keeping all his lines in order as every narrative introduction starts with the exact same music, but he delivered with brilliant consistency.
  • Rachel John as Angelica Hamilton had a superb voice and was mesmerising in Satisfied.
  • Rachelle Ann Go as Eliza Hamilton gave a brilliant, emotional performance.
  • Jason Pennycooke as Maquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson had the charisma to carry off two larger-than-life characters and add his own nuances to the performance.
  • Michael Jibson as King George had the swagger and stage craft to carry this royal, comedic part.
  • Obioma Ugolala as George Washington had a lovely bass tone to his voice and gave an assured performance as the Father of America.

The cast were exceptional throughout and the ensemble had as much to do as the principles and did it brilliantly.

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 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!