West End stars Louise Dearman (Wicked), Tim Driesen (Never Forget), Gerard Carey (Masterclass) and Lucy Sinclair (We Will Rock You) are set to lead a workshop presentation of a brand new musical version of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan tomorrow.

The workshop, which will take place in front of an invited audience at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue  at 1pm on  Thursday 28th June, will feature Dearman as Tinker Bell, Driesen as Pan, Carey as Hook and Sinclair as Wendy.

An ensemble of 35 other characters is played by a supporting cast of seven – Allyson Ava-Brown, James Ballanger, Natasha J Barnes, Matt Corner, Anthony Lawrence, Sion Lloyd and Kit Orton – working with a fast-paced, funny new script.

The workshop is directed by Christian Durham (Chicago, We Will Rock You), with movement by Lucie Pankhurst, musical direction by Dean Austin (Taboo, Zorro, Spamalot), casting by Anne Vosser and orchestrations by Tom Curran. Music, book and lyrics are by Jimmy Jewell, with additional book and lyrics by Nick Stimson.

Spellbound: Former Glinda Louise Dearman will appear as Tinker Bell

For further information about the workshop presentation, e-mail peterpanworkshop@gmail.com.

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I  love Dolly Parton. I love her little Confucius-style Dollyisms, I love her music, I love the concept of Dollywood. So I’m pretty sure I’ll love the jukebox musical based on her hits, 9 to 5. I must emphasize that I am as critical of the jukebox musical trends as most other lovers of ‘proper’ theatre, but the bottom line is they do well, bring in money and possibly even enable producers to go on and produce something more organic. Plus, lots of them are good, clean fun. The plot is based on the 1980 movie of the same name, with Dolly’s soulful and perky country tunes leading the way for the narrative. Whether it turns out to be a foot-tapper or a flop in the UK, I would still love to be Dolly just for a day… she seems to have such fun with life as well as having such great singing and songwriting talent at the core.

Dolly spoke to BBC Breakfast this morning about 9 to 5, which will start its UK tour at Manchester’s Opera House in October 2012. God love her for a) not throwing a diva strop at being asked to sing and b) still sounding fantastic at 66 (yes…. sixty-bloody-six). The show’s run on Broadway earned it four Tony Award nominations, which speaks highly of it, and if it captures even a little of Dolly’s chutzpah and sparkle, it’ll be a great night out.

When I reviewed Ghost after it came to London back in June, I wrote that I couldn’t imagine a new cast post-Levy/Fleeshman. Well, it’s happened; a press release today announced that Wicked‘s Mark Evans and How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? finalist Siobhan Dillon will replace Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy as doomed couple Sam and Molly. Thankfully, my favourite member of the cast, Sharon D. Clarke, stays on as loveably batty medium Oda Mae Brown. Having seen Evans command the stage in last year’s Oklahoma! tour and Dillon shine most recently in the Soho Theatre’s EX, I’m actually quite excited about this casting choice. While both are a little more glossy than Levy and the Fleesh, I’m sure they can be roughed up a bit to fit in with this gritty, New York-y production.

As the year draws to a close, I would like to applaud Ghost for bringing a little magic into the West End in a time of tired concepts and cartoonish musicals. It has been slated by some for reproducing Bruce Joel Rubin’s 80s screenplay on the stage, but the illusions are innovative, the music interesting in its rock-pop quality and the emotion of the narrative perhaps even more raw than in the movie. Yes there’s a chorus that didn’t entirely agree with me and a few rogue musical numbers which didn’t enhance the story, but the central plot is mesmerising and Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman’s chemistry explosive.

The new cast will appear from 13 January 2012, with performances now booking until next October. It could be that Ghost is just commercial enough to stay afloat, despite its new score and ambitious staging – and I hope to be back there to see it succeed.

Ghost is at the Piccadilly Theatre (ghostthemusical.com)

It’s been a long time since I saw a show I was genuinely, hyperventilatingly excited about, but Ghost was just that. The website I write for, The Public Reviews, gave its recent Manchester run five stars, and I’m a huge fan of both the 1990 movie and female lead Caissie Levy. The original score was written by former Eurythmic Dave Stewart, with Glen Ballard (who wrote and produced Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill), so is naturally of quite a pop-rock persuasion.

Firstly, I’d say seating choices will alter your experience of Ghost. I was lucky enough to be a friend’s freebie plus one, so we were right on the edge of the stalls, quite close to the stage. Many of the brilliant supernatural illusions were ever so slightly more visible from this viewpoint. I’d really like to go again and sit higher or more centrally, but it was still spine-tingling.

In case you haven’t seen the movie (DO IT), the story begins with sickeningly content couple Molly (Caissie Levy) and Sam (Richard Fleeshman), an artist and a banker, who have just bought their first apartment and moved in. Sam is tragically killed not long after, and Molly is left with only the comfort of Sam’s best friend Carl (Andrew Langtree) – but there is more to his death than she knows. Sam’s spirit is left to put things right with only the help of quirky and fraudulent psychic Oda Mae Brown (Sharon D Clarke.)

Even though it is early days, it is hard to imagine a new cast succeeding the unbeatable combination of Fleeshman and Levy. His tall, Superman physique and her petite boho quality are perfectly matched, as are his soulful voice with her rock-tinged belt. In life, their chemistry sizzles; in death, their connection persists. Even without the careful and spectacular staging and excellent direction by Matthew Warchus, much of the magic of Ghost lies in this pairing.

Levy makes me realise what I look for in a leading lady – utter control, confidence and security in her voice and character. She makes her often wistful and lonely numbers unpredictable and haunting, but you always feel comfortable with her taking the stage. She makes a difficult character, one preoccupied with mourning, fascinating to watch. Fleeshman has the hard job of holding many of the scenes together while ‘invisible’ to 99% of the other characters. His scenes with Oda Mae in particular are a real highlight, and he shows off musical ability (strumming a guitar onstage), comedic talent and a silky vocal tone that is both distinctive and well-suited to the character.

This is an updated Molly and Sam; don’t expect a pixie-cropped Demi or a copper-Adonis Swayze, because this is a whole new Ghost. This works fine in my opinion, as it freshens the characters and you are drawn into a whole new love story, though much of Bruce Joel Rubin’s excellent screenplay remains as the dialogue.

Sharon D Clarke sets the stage on fire with her hilarious, warm, sparkling interpretation of Oda Mae, the unique character originated by Whoopi Goldberg. She avoids pitfall number one by steering clear of doing a Whoopi impression, and her added gospel and disco numbers showcase this woman’s astonishing voice and stage presence. Again, God help the actor who has to step into her shoes.

Andrew Langtree smarms and sweats as the couple’s friend Carl, managing to be both sinister and a man way out of his depth. His ‘New Yoyk’ accent was a little studied and made him more of a caricature than he needed to be, but overall he handled his scenes brilliantly – even as a fan of the movie, I felt like I didn’t know where we stood with him.

Overall this main cast of four are practically perfection – their voices, their chemistry, the slickness of their direction. In the scenes where Sam is talking ‘through’ Oda Mae, no one misses a beat. However, there is also an unaccountably large and awkward ensemble, who appear at intervals for largely pointless group numbers.

I don’t wish to criticise them as performers; I’m acutely aware of how hard a West End ensemble works and how grateful they often are to be part of a new show. I just feel they are badly used; something just didn’t work for me. At times, Caissie Levy is centre stage singing something heartfelt, and there are suit-clad businessmen and women dancing oddly in the background.

Much of their purpose, from what I can glean, is to diplay the fast-paced world of Wall Street and add to the street and subway scenes, but not a line of their songs was memorable, and Ashley Wallen‘s choreography felt clunky and ill-fitting with the simplicity and soul of the main plot.

One use was as a backing choir for Oda Mae in her uptempo number in Act Two, which was obviously needed, but other than that I’m afraid I would have sacked the lot of them and started from scratch as a smaller, more focused musical. I think there is enough of a spectacle with the supernatural effects, and enough lightness and humour in the Oda Mae storyline to get even the most X Factor-fed audience member through it unscathed. Some might disagree.

Sean Ebsworth Barnes

The only moment where their presence truly offended me, was after Sam’s incredibly acted and cleverly-conceived death. We are left grieving with Molly for approximately eight seconds before a tap-dancing ghost (with a host of bizarre, historically-costumed spirits) comes to sing to Sam all about death. The only word I have for this is ‘Why?’ The song wasn’t even good.

In terms of the main characters though, there was just the right balance of music and dialogue, you cared just enough about the couple and saw just enough of Oda Mae’s antics – the central plot of this show is beautifully balanced.

Rob Howell‘s design (with projection design by Jon Driscoll) is for the most part excellent. Most of the scenery turns into a video screen, which is best used in the subway scenes and with views of New York from Sam and Carl’s office. However, it is overused, seemingly to justify having it. This could be scaled down, as the moody, blue-tinged sadness of Molly’s apartment scenes are some of the simplest and best. Again, the structure and different panels of the screens were more clearly visible from the stalls, which may have made it less effective.

To go with this visual display, the sound was also very loud in the stalls (although a friend in the Circle tells me she found it almost inaudible from there at first) so the team are obviously still ironing out the creases in these previews. There is a moving section of the stage which is used to great effect, and the flexible, projected scenery mean we can move from red-brick Brooklyn to seedy Harlem in seconds, great  for those who dislike clunky scene changes.

The smoke and mirrors of the afterlife provide some of the best bits of the show; Paul Kieve‘s illusions are carefully and lovingly conceived, and none of the death scenes were cheesy or overplayed. The score is not memorable, sadly – it does however suit and showcase the lovely vocals of Levy and Fleeshman, and the restrained ratio of songs to dialogue improves it. Stewart produced Stevie Nicks’ latest album, and the country-rock quality of his songs really suits the actors’ vocal tones.

One of the most pleasant surprises was that the producers got the rights to Unchained Melody. I’m not a fan of the song, but  it was appropriately and charmingly used, rather than in a crowd-pleasing, 80s-nostalgia way. Like the casting, it refreshes a visually iconic story so familiar to so many of us. The romance and the resolution of this stunning show are truly raw and moving, and it will hopefully introduce a whole new generation to the magical, original story of Ghost.

 

Warning: this trailer shows you quite a lot of the show!

*The performance I saw was a preview, and some aspects of the production may change before the show opens on 19th July.

http://www.cheaptheatretickets.com/ghost-the-musical/

Reviewed for The Public Reviews

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this revival tour of Chess. Widely known for the breakaway pop duet I Know Him So Well and being co-written by the boys from ABBA, I knew from a brilliant amateur production I’d seen in my teens that there was a lot more to this rock-opera than board games.

Set amidst the icy tensions of the Cold War, the show focuses on the 1979 world chess championship, where the USA’s egomaniac champion Freddie Trumper must defend his title against the USSR’s Anatoly Sergievsky. This evolves into a passionate love triangle over Freddie’s assistant and lover, Florence Vassy, as the two men are pitted against each other by their nations and the media, reflecting the politics of the time.

This production, promoted heavily as the brainchild of Strictly’s Craig Revel-Horwood, is clearly on crystal meth and styled by Lady Gaga, a whirlwind of pop-culture elements that really shouldn’t work – but it does. The show-stealing ensemble are dressed as flamboyant, Westwood-esque chess pieces, with black-bobbed, black lipped pawns in military dress. Christopher Woods’ incredible designs animate the politics of the chessboard, each piece vivid and charismatic in its own right.

One of the main triumphs of this staging is that 25 of the 30-strong cast play instruments on stage (orchestrated by Tony-winner Sarah Travis), deftly built around their witty and macabre choreography and flawless vocals. The three principals, although sometimes obscured by the intensity of the chorus, are equally fantastic in their rockstar vocals and stage presence. James Fox is the standout performer, with just the right amount of American smarm and rage, and owns the stage in One Night in Bangkok and even the somewhat whiny Pity the Child. His range seems endless and his vocals are constantly at full-throttle.

More light and shade is provided by Shona White in the Elaine Paige-originated role of Florence; a fairly one-dimensional character with undoubtedly the best songs in the show. White’s powerful voice and feisty yet fragile character earned her the biggest applause of the night. Daniel Koek as the introspective, forceful Anatoly provides a very different but complimentary sound with his rich tenor, although in some of his more wordy songs the meaning was lost to amped-up sound and too much ensemble backing.

Slick support is provided by David Erik as the devilish, trumpet-playing Arbiter, clad in a full-length leather coat, and Steve Varnom as the seedy Molokov. Poppy Tierney is graceful and steely as Anatoly’s wronged wife Svetlana, but the material doesn’t offer much of an insight into her character. The choreography, under scrutiny due to its star creator, is frenetic and varied, dipping into classical as well as hardcore gay-club territory. Though the dance numbers were undeniably entertaining, I would still say the vocals were the best part, making me long for a touring cast soundtrack.

Chess had a meagre three-year West End run in the 80s, and quickly flopped on Broadway. Not only does it demand of its audience a basic understanding of Cold War politics, but Tim Rice’s sublime lyrics are fast-paced and intellectual – this is a musical which requires concentration. Contrastingly, its standout numbers (bar the rousing Anthem at the end of Act I) are recognisably-ABBA pop ballads, with some haunting music-box waltzes and rock numbers to combat the cheese factor. It is a challenging show, but a thoroughly enjoyable one if you are open to the humour and genius within. Entertaining touches such as ‘broadcasts’ by the characters into cameras hidden in the onstage instruments and projected on to the minimalist scenery, really add flavour.

This dark story of media hype, global superpowers and on a smaller scale, one woman’s emotional survival, is still compelling and thought-provoking stuff more than two decades after its creation. Highly recommended for Rice fans, although ABBA’s may be in for a shock.

Runs until 5th March in Bristol.

Tour continues to Woking, Torquay, Dublin, High Wycombe and Glasgow – dates here.