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I first saw The Book of Mormon at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway, New York. This time it was in Birmingham, UK, a lot closer to home.

I’m trying to link to my previous review, but at the moment WordPress won’t let me, so here it is in it’s entirety:

“If you haven’t heard of this musical, then all I can say is, where have you been hiding for the last  few years?! Causing fits of laughter, receiving accolades and plaudits aplenty and managing to offend a few people along the way, The Book of Mormon has carved out a huge name for itself, not least because it was written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

I was lucky enough to be able to see this show on Broadway in New York, and wow! What an experience! The story is fairly straightforward – after a brief intro explaining what The Book of Mormon actually is – we are plunged into the narrative of two young Mormon missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who are given the task of preaching the Mormon religion in Uganda. However, when they arrive in the remote Ugandan village, they discover the inhabitants are more concerned with their own problems, such as famine, AIDS and trying to escape the tyranny of the local warlord.

As Elder Price becomes increasingly frustrated with his inability to get through to the locals, as well as his annoyance at being teamed with the misfit Elder Cunningham, it is in fact the said Elder Cunningham who gets through to the villagers in a most unconventional manner, leading to chaos – and much hilarity.

It must be said – as if everyone didn’t already know – that this is most definitely not a show for children or for the easily offended. It relentlessly takes the mickey out of organised religion (there is a song in it called F*** You God), there is a hefty dollop of swear words throughout, and references to all kinds of lewd and illegal acts. So there are plenty of reasons to think that this show wouldn’t have been a huge success…and there are plenty of reasons why it is absolutely a success and is now in its sixth year on Broadway.

In the production we saw, Mancunian actor Don Simpson played Elder Price – he was excellent, and had a wonderful singing voice and perfect comic timing. The more eccentric Elder Cunningham was played by Brian Sears, who was hilarious and had the whole audience rooting for him, bringing a sense of vulnerability to the character.

Nabulungi, beautiful daughter of the Ugandan doctor and the villager who is most enthusiastic to learn more about The Book of Mormon is played by Kim Exum. She too had a gorgeous voice and was exactly as sweet yet feisty as the role demands. The aforementioned Doctor Mafala was played by Billy Eugene Jones, and has the honour of getting to sing the last – and possibly the funniest – song lyric in the whole show (I’m not spoiling it for you here). The evil General was played by Derrick Williams, complete with yellow cowboy boots and utter confusion at Elder Price’s attempts to convert him.

There are some excellent songs in the show, and although I didn’t know any of them prior to attending, they were all very catchy – my favourites being the opening number Hello!, as well as You and Me (But Mostly Me), Sal Play Ka Siti, and Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, which accompanied an incredibly funny scene set in hell, as the title would suggest (complete with the characters of Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, Genghis Khan and…Johnny Cochran.)

Overall, I really enjoyed this show, and the rest of the packed auditorium also seemed to love it. I would dearly like to see this show again and am already looking into the possibility of seeing it in London’s West End.

Highly, highly recommended (but not if you are easily offended!!)”

Everything I said above about the show still stands – it’s hilarious and the cast (entirely different and listed below) were equally as good. I loved the show and highly recommend it.

Elder Price was played by Robert Colvin

Elder Cunningham was played by Conner Peirson

Nabulungi was played by Nicole-Lily Baisden

Elder McKinley was played by Will Hawksworth

Mafala Hatimbi was played by Ewen Cummins

The General was played by Thomas Vernal, who also played Satan

 

 

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Not having ever read the play by Alan Bennett, or seen the film adaptation of The History Boys, I went into the production knowing very little about it. Set in the 1980s, the story revolves around six bright, high-spirited students and their very different teachers – Hector (Ian Redford) and Irwin (Lee Comley). The teaching staff is rounded out by Jeffrey Holland as the results-obsessed headmaster Felix, and Victoria Carling as Mrs Lintott (in fact, the only female in the whole play).

Hector is a man confused about his own sexuality, which causes issues for him and others, and who wants to, if not incite the boys to rebellion, at least make them think for themselves about what they want to do with their lives, rather than merely follow the path to Oxbridge which Felix is determined they must do. Young supply teacher Irwin is brought in to temper Hector’s anarchic style of teaching. Mr Lintott is the foil to all three of the male teachers, seeing things more clearly and stating things more succinctly. The boys not only have to cope with the pressure of dealing with their futures, but also with everything that comes with being a teenager – they can be loud, raucous, in some cases, discovering their own sexuality, and for at least one, turning to religion to the bemusement of his unseen parents (they were prepared for dealing with drugs, but not for God!)

The beauty of this production was in the script, which was fast paced, humorous and poignant, but also in the casting; whoever was in charge of picking the cast did an outstanding job, as there was not one single weak link in the whole cast.

The boys were played by Thomas Grant as Posner – in love with a fellow student, coming to terms with his homosexuality, but with a sweet sense of humour and a lovely singing voice which he was able to demonstrate on a number of occasions; Jordan Scowen as Dakin, cocksure for the most part but displaying vulnerability too, witty and clever; Frazer Hadfield as Scripps (I adored him), probably the most level headed of the group, sometime narrator to the audience, and an excellent piano player; Joe Wiltshire Smith as the non-academic Rudge with a dry sense of humour; James Schofield as Lockwood; Arun Bassi as Akthar; Dominic Treacy in a very humorous turn as Timms; and Adonis Jenieco as Crowther.

The musical interludes – featuring well known songs from the eighties with video clips of the cast, showing what is going on with the characters outside of what is going on on stage – were ingenious and allowed seamless set changes on stage.

Overall, a truly wonderful production – highly highly recommended.

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Calendar Girls tells the true story of a WI branch in Yorkshire who did a nude calendar (with the strategic use of props to cover their modesty) in order to raise money for a settee in the hospital where one of the women’s husband was treated for cancer prior to his death. The story was made into a film in 2003, starring such acting stalwarts  as Penelope Wilton, Helen Mirren, Annette Crosbie, Linda Bassett, Julie Walters and Celia Imrie. It’s also been made into a play, and now here comes the musical with music by Gary Barlow.

I have to say this musical exceeded all of my expectations – I knew it would be good, but I generally prefer musicals with songs that I know, and I didn’t know any of the songs here. But it absolutely did not matter. The songs themselves were catchy and joyous and helped moved the narrative along. I thought Gary Barlow’s style was all over them, which is no bad thing. However, it is the cast who steal the show here – and they were – without exception – superb.

Annie, the lady whose husband dies, was played by the lovely Sarah Jane Buckley, who was very natural in the part. This is an ensemble piece and the rest of the ladies were played by Rebecca Storm as Chris, Sue Devaney as Cora, Lisa Maxwell as Celia, Julia Hills as Ruth and Vanessa Grace Lee as Jessie. Each one of them had her moment in the sun, and a song exclusively for their character, and without exception each one of them nailed it.

Kudos to Tyler Dobbs and Danny Howker, as Tommo and Danny, the sons of the two of the women, and also to respectively Phil Corbitt as John, Annie’s husband; Richard Anthony Lloyd as Colin, Celia’s husband, Ian Mercer as Rod, Chris’s husband, and Derek Elroy as Lawrence the photographer.

The first half of the show had some extremely funny moments, but also some very emotional ones, depicting John’s declining health (I cried), but the second half of the show is truly hilarious; I genuinely had a stomach ache from laughing so hard. A few cheeky peeks of boobs and bums were funny rather than smutty. This is without doubt one of the best musicals I have ever seen, and I would highly highly recommend it to anyone and everyone.

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I had never seen the film Educating Rita (although I have bought it to watch after seeing this show). However, it was originally a stage show before being filmed for the big screen, so the touring production has gone back to its roots.

It’s written by Willy Russell (who also wrote Blood Brothers) so you know that there is going to be humour, sadness and poignancy in the script. For anyone not familiar with the story, Rita is a Liverpudlian hairdresser and housewife who feels there must be more to life and enrols on an Open University course in English Literature. Frank is her lecturer, a borderline alcoholic, disillusioned with his career. He underestimates Rita’s ability or willingness to learn, but as they work through the course, both of them ending up helping each other in different ways.

The show is a two hander – the only two members of the cast – Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson are on stage throughout the entire performance (save for the brief moments before and after Rita arrives and leaves her lessons. Its also set entirely in Frank’s study. So there is a lot of responsibility on the two actors to deliver – and deliver they do, in spades. Stephen Tompkinson is perfectly cast as Frank, and despite his issues you cannot help liking him, and more importantly believing in the character. Jessica Johnson was also extremely likeable and entirely believable as Rita, and the two bounced off each other very well.

The dialogue is at times razor sharp, but there is also pathos and both Frank and Rita’s back stories are laced with regret. Willy Russell seems to be able to get to the heart of the human psyche, and has done so brilliantly here. (For my money, this is a much more enjoyable play than Blood Brothers.)

Quite simply superb – if you get the chance to see this production, don’t miss it!

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This is the second time I have seen this show, which is based on the 1992 film of the same name starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. When I saw it in 2015 (review here) Zoe Birkett played the role of Rachel Marron; on this occasion Jennlee Shallow tackled the part and it’s safe to say she was an outstanding success.

A brief recap of the story for anyone who is not familiar – Rachel Marron is the world’s biggest singing star, but has become the target of a deranged and calculating stalker. Frank Farmer is the bodyguard hired to look after her, although neither Rachel doesn’t want him there, and Frank doesn’t want the job. They are initially disdainful of each other, but their relationship start to grow and Frank realises that his feelings for Rachel are getting in the way of his job.

The show literally opens with a bang – a gunshot rings out and you see two men caught in a standoff, before the spectacular opening number, Queen of the Night. The show plunges the audience right into Rachel’s world with this song – the fire, the costumes, the dancing, gets you into the mood immediately.

The musical numbers are of course the real attraction of the show – Shallow has a great voice and uses it to full effect; for me, the ballads are the more enjoyable songs. Run To You, All at Once, One Moment in Time and I Have Nothing, are all beautiful and brought a lump to my throat.

Frank was played by the gorgeous Benoit Marechal, who brought the perfect amount of gentlemanliness and reticence to the role – his karaoke rendition of I Will Always Love You, was a comedic highlight in a show packed with drama. Micha Richardson played Rachel’s sister Nikki, always eclipsed by her younger, famous sibling, and harbouring an unrequited desire for Frank. The stalker was played with menace by Phil Atkinson, and there are six young boys playing Rachel’s son Fletcher – on this occasion Caleb Williams took the role and stole the audience’s hearts.

Just a fantastic show which has drama, laughter, amazing singing and dancing – for me this will be one that I will see every time it comes around and I highly recommend it.

 

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When I was about 10 years old, my Mom took me to the cinema to see the film Annie, and 30-something years later I repaid the favour by taking her to the theatre to see the stage production.

For anyone who isn’t familiar, set during the Great Depression in America, the film tells the story of plucky young Annie, who lives in an orphanage with several other girls, ruled with a rod of iron by the cruel and drunken Miss Hannigan. When billionaire Oliver Warbucks decides to have Annie to stay with him for Christmas, it leads to a search for Annie’s real parents, but Miss Hannigan and her criminal brother Rooster have plans of their own to get rich…

If you have never seen the film – it doesn’t matter, you MUST see this show! If you have seen this film – you MUST see this show! It stays faithful to the storyline, but more importantly it is so filled with joy and laughter that it is an absolute treat from start to finish. The best known of the cast is Anita Dobson, who was genuinely hilarious as Miss Hannigan – let nobody be in any doubt of her outstanding talent – and were it not for the fact that the rest of the cast were also superb, she would steal every scene.

With such familiar songs as ‘Tomorrow’, ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’ and ‘YOu’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile’ and outstanding dancing, I challenge anyone to leave this show without a huge smile on their face.

Kudos to Richard Meek as Rooster, Alex Bourne as Daddy Warbucks and Carolyn Maitland as Grace Farrell, as well as (in this production – the child stars are rotated show to show) Honey-Rose Quinn as Molly and of course Ava Smith as Annie. And I can’t omit the beautiful Labradoodle Amber playing Annie’s cuddliest friend Sandy.

All in all, a total joy from start to finish!

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For anyone who doesn’t know the story of Top Hat, it centres on Broadway sensation Jerry Travers, who falls hard for society girl Dale Tremont, and dances his way from Broadway to London to Venice in order to win her heart. A case of mistaken identity causes all sorts of problems, but there is so much fun to be had on the way.

Having seen and loved the 1935 film, and also seen the West End stage show production (on tour), I can safely say that this is one of my favourite musicals, because it’s impossible to watch it and not feel happy. The songs will make you smile, the storyline is both romantic and extremely funny, and the dancing is spectacular.

All of this means that it is no mean feat for an amateur dramatics company to take on, but South Staffs Musical Theatre Company have taken on many such productions in their long history and are never found wanting.

Watching it, I was mesmerised by Harry Simkin and Fiona Winning, who played Jerry and Dale (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers famously played the roles in the film, and Tom Chambers debuted the role of Jerry when it was made into a stage musical). Simkin and Winning are 17 and 16 respectively, but you would think they had been singing and dancing for decades, such was their professionalism and obvious talent. I really felt as if I was watching two future stars.

Also must mention Dom Napier as Alberto Beddini, the wannabe rival for Dale’s heart, and John Wiley who played footman Bates. Both of these were in danger of stealing their scenes, and raised some huge laughs from the audience.

Overall, a wonderful show and another feather in the cap for the South Staffs Musical Theatre Company.

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