One great place to see shows not often performed in the West End is the Fringe; another is London’s generous sprinkling of drama schools. Central School of Speech and Drama has become one of the most famous dramatic institutions in the capital since being founded in 1906, and last night I attended the MA Music Theatre course’s final production, Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.
The cast were slick and assured in their delivery of this complex and intense musical. The show full of Sondheim’s signature rhythms, rhymes and scattered stream-of-consciousness lyrics, Rick Woska as intense artist George and Kate Adler as his lover Dot kept a fantastic pace and stayed on top of the relentless material. Both possessed with a strong stage presence and vocal talent, these two propelled the show along.
As someone who finds Sondheim unreasonably lofty and intellectual for a musical theatre composer, Sunday did not change my mind so much as give me a small insight into the man and his methods. ‘Art isn’t easy…’ sings the cast in the modern-day second act, and this certainly isn’t one of Sondheim’s most accessible shows. The character of George, absorbed in his work, a perfectionist, closed to the demands of everyone but his art, and the reaction of his contemporaries, seemed reflected by the show itself – Sunday may not hit you with waves of emotion or wit, but you can see a lot of thought has gone into the process. Still, the CSSD actors made it a visual treat using paint-spattered curtains, cleverly employed frames for both sketching and photography, projection and effective choreography. Not to mention the spot-on costumes for the stunning close of Act 1, where Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – the inspiration for this entire show – is recreated amid the powerful harmonies of standout number Sunday.
Each soloist had a strong and vivid voice, and the scenes were absorbing and well acted. The one sadness was that the material did not allow for much humour or passion – personally, my spine remained un-tingled and my diaphragm unstretched by laughter. But I can’t blame the cast for this; Stephen Sondheim and I largely go together like chocolate and pickled herring (he’s the herring), and I think this may be one of his driest pieces.
One of the more touching moments was George’s duet with his mother (Vassula Delli), Beautiful. Bada Ruban and Kimberley Shore also provided lightness as Mr and Mrs America, struggling to get off the island and appreciate Paris’s charms. Overall, Sunday did exactly what it was supposed to do in this instance: showcase the professionalism and confidence of its cast. It may not be a spectacularly entertaining or moving show, but it’s certainly a thinker, and this came across neatly in this CSSD production.
January 11, 2011
[Written for The Public Reviews]
Helena Blackman, runner-up in 2006’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and former star of South Pacific, is releasing an album, The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The CD features songs from Oklahoma, The Sound of Music and The King and I, as well as duets with classical singer Jonathan Ansell and West Ender Daniel Boys. I caught up with her to chat about her musical life, drama school and having confidence in you…
Congratulations on the album. Have you always been a fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein, or have you just found your career has led to that style of musical theatre?
Yes, I’ve always been a fan – I remember watching the musicals on television when I was little. I can’t remember a musical theatre life without Rodgers and Hammerstein being a part of it, actually! I think we’re sort of part of that era; before Wicked, and before Avenue Q and before any of that, it was Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Do you have a favourite track?
I have lots of favourite ones in very different ways. I think Love, Look Away [from Flower Drum Song] is becoming one. It’s a song that I wasn’t familiar with, and we completely rearranged it, so I don’t really know the original and decided not to listen to it. We aimed to do a sort of Michael Bublé thing with it, so that’s quite exciting, to do something very different. There’s only so far you can change Rodgers and Hammerstein, but we’ve tried to make it fresh where we can.
You’re best known for reaching the final of the BBC’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? What did you learn from doing the show?
It completely changed me as a person, actually. I think it made me much more self-aware, it made me stronger in some respects, it made me weaker in some respects – and just a lot more knowing, probably, than I was ready for. It certainly made me realise I can go through most things and come out the other end OK.
You must have made some great contacts though?
You know, I don’t think I was as good at that then. I was young and a bit naïve, and it was the first show. It’s not like doing it now; we had no idea what to expect, so it was very much like being at school – if someone said ‘You, dance now,’ you’d dance. I thought, if anything, we might come out failing miserably. So it was actually very surprising eventually that we all did so well, and that’s nothing to do with any of our talents, we were all very talented girls, but you never know how a show like that will come out. You think, ‘I might never work again!’
Did you keep in touch with any of the other girls or judges?
Yes I do, I’m in touch with most of the girls – one of them, Laura, is one of my best friends now, she lives round the corner from me. I’m still in touch with Zoe [Tyler] and Craig Revel-Horwood, who was actually the choreographer. I keep in touch with him a little bit too. So it’s wonderful.
You trained at GSA before auditioning for Maria. How important do you think drama school is as a foundation?
I can’t imagine doing it any other way; I absolutely adored drama school. I was finally in a situation where I was with so many people like me, and I was thrilled by that. I can’t speak for other drama schools, and I can’t speak for how training has changed, but I found it really liberating. It was basically about ourselves and less about how talented we were – it was about how to breathe through the process, and to cope with things and know ourselves better, ultimately. It’s now that I think back to training and think I’m a better actress and singer because of that. Also, you get a sense of stability and a sense of passion, and you realise how much you love it, I think.
You recently tweeted that one of your New Year’s resolutions is ‘to remember that my life isn’t actually that bad.’ Do you have any others?
Eat better. Because I go through things where I binge and want to eat lots of rubbish, and actually it’s not good for me physically or vocally. I’m a much better person when I’ve slept, too. It’s more about looking after my temple, that’s what I feel this year, looking after the inside. And really just to go for it – I spend a lot of time worrying about certain situations, career wise, and I’m constantly aware that life is short, and this career is complete ups and downs. I just think, keep going for it, and to have the resolution, ‘life is too short.’ I’m constantly aware of that to push me forward.
The album’s out on Valentine’s Day. As a single girl, I was worried it might be full of schmaltz, but in actual fact there’s a streak of girl power with I Enjoy Being a Girl and I Have Confidence on the list.
I didn’t think about it that way but yes, I think it’s a mantra for me, being a single lady at present, about having confidence and feeling good about yourself. It’s coming through whatever journey you’re on and still having faith in love and life and happiness. I think subconsciously I did pick songs that meant something to me, and they’re great songs; they can mean anything to anybody. That’s why I love Rodgers and Hammerstein.
What’s been your favourite role to perform so far?
Show wise, still Saturday Night. I absolutely adored singing it; So Many People is my ultimate favourite Sondheim song, so to sing that was a little bit of a dream come true. We did a concert with Michael Bruce, and singing that sort of material was amazing, because I don’t often get to sing modern stuff. So for me that’s really exciting, and I’m less inhibited by it. I don’t have to step into anybody else’s shoes.
Do you have an ultimate dream role?
Do you know what, I spoke to George Stiles about doing Mary Poppins actually, and he said he thinks I’d make a great Mary Poppins. So I’d love to do that at some point. I love Stiles and Drewe – they’re my sort of music, epic, not trying to be too different but just writing what they love – it’s a bit magical, and I like that. Also, I’d love to be Eliza Doolittle, I really would. And Gypsy, I’d like to do that again! Any of the classics.