YORK company Pick Me Up Theatre’s delayed northern premiere of Mel Brooks’s comedy horror musical Young Frankenstein opens at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre next Wednesday.
Unforeseen circumstances had forced the late postponement of last autumn’s run at the Grand Opera House, but rehearsals re-started in York in early December under the direction of Andrew Isherwood.
All the original principal cast chosen by Pick Me Up artistic director and designer Robert Readman was still available, not least former squash world number one James Willstrop in the lead role of mad scientist Dr Frederick Frankenstein, first played by Gene Wilder in Brooks’s 1974 horror-movie spoof of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein.
“You hear of other shows where it’s happened, but it was a really sad feeling when we couldn’t do it as were just about to start our run,” recalls James.
“I was feeling pretty depressed afterwards, thinking ‘this show isn’t going to happen’ – and when people ask, ‘how are you feeling?’, it’s unusual to have to explain to anyone as it’s not ‘real life’, but you do feel really deflated.
“But then we got this text from Bells [production management assistant and actress Helen Spencer] asking, ‘Can you do these dates?’, as Robert said we could go ahead with a new run.”
Out went Pick Me Up’s planned production of Chicago at the JoRo, replaced by Young Frankenstein. Rehearsals have been a matter of “going again”. “We had the best part of a month off when the last thing I was thinking of doing was listening to the soundtrack!” says James.
“It’s been a case of getting into the scenes again, with the choreography kept largely the same. Andrew has been really great on the detail, which actors love, and that’s been good. He’s trusted our instincts and he’s been very alive to the comedy.”
James, who made his Pick Me Up debut as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound Of Music in December 2022, has enjoyed becoming acquainted with Brooks’s parody songs.
“Going into the audition, I didn’t know a lot about the show, but I love Pick Me Up and working with Robert, and I loved the opening number, The Brain, which I decided to learn for the audition.
“A week out from the audition, I hadn’t been sure about the show, but by the time I did the audition, I was thinking, ‘this part is great, I’ve got to do it’!
“The first few times, listening to the soundtrack, it took me a while to get a feel for the songs, but then you realise they’re just great, simple songs. I love the tunes, they have a vaudeville quality, and the humour is always there.”
James, now 40, had first performed in “serious dramas” before branching out into musicals, and last year found him heading to the Cornish coast to play deluded mystery novel writer Charles Considine in Ilkley Playhouse’s production of Noel Coward’s supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit at the Minack Theatre.
“Doing that humorous role, and being tall [James is 6ft 4ins], with all the physicality that goes with that, just seemed to link perfectly to then playing Frederick Frankenstein,” he says.
In Brooks’s spoof, the grandson of infamous scientist Victor Frankenstein, Dr Frederick Frankenstein, has inherited his family’s castle estate in Transylvania. Aided and hindered by hunchbacked sidekick Igor, Scandinavian lab assistant Inga, stern German Frau Blucher and needy fiancée Elizabeth, he strives to fulfil his grandfather’s legacy by bringing a corpse back to life.
Cue comedy in the bold Brooks style. “It’s lovely to be doing something silly, full of innuendos and jokes that some people might hate but are just daft,” says James. “It’s not subtle but it’s a great comedy genre,”
James, whose father grew up in York, lives in Harrogate and now divides his time between coaching squash – and “still playing a bit” – at the Pontefract Squash and Leisure Club and performing on stage.
Coming next will be his role as recovering alcoholic Harry in Bingley Little Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company at Bingley Arts Centre, West Yorkshire, from July 1 to 6.
Pick Me Up Theatre in Young Frankenstein, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, January 31 to February 32024, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk
YORK company Pick Me Up Theatre will stage the northern premiere of Mel Brooks’s musical Young Frankenstein in the New Year after the late postponement of last autumn’s run at the Grand Opera House.
Andrew Isherwood has picked up the directorial reins for this stage conversion of Brooks’s comedy horror movie, produced in York by artistic director and designer Robert Readman.
Rehearsals re-started in early December for the January 31 to February 3 run at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, with the original principal cast still in place and Helen Spencer assisting with production management.
“This show is by the creators of the record-breaking Broadway sensation The Producers,” says Robert. “The comedy genius Mel Brooks has adapted his legendary comedy film from 1974 into a brilliant stage show of Young Frankenstein. I saw the West End production and loved it.
“Every bit as relevant to audience members who will remember the original as it will be to newcomers, the musical has all the of panache of the screen sensation with a little extra theatrical flair added. Young Frankenstein is scientifically proven, monstrously good entertainment.”
In Brooks’s spoof, the grandson of infamous scientist Victor Frankenstein, Dr Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en-steen”, he insists), has inherited his family’s castle estate in Transylvania.
Aided and hindered by hunchbacked sidekick Igor (pronounced “Eye-gore”), leggy lab assistant Inga (pronounced normally), devilishly sexy Frau Blucher (“Neigh”!) and needy fiancée Elizabeth (“Surprise”!), Frederick finds himself filling the mad scientist shoes of his ancestor.
After initial reluctance, his mission will be to strive to fulfil his grandfather’s legacy by bringing a corpse back to life. “It’s alive!”, he exclaims as his experiment yields a creature to rival his grandfather’s monster. Eventually, and inevitably, this new monster escapes.
Working in tandem with Thomas Meehan, Brooks gleefully reanimates his horror-movie send-up of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, with even more jokes, set-pieces and barnstorming parody songs that stick a pitchfork into good taste. Among those songs will be Puttin’ On The Ritz, Please Don’t Touch Me, He Vas My Boyfriend, The Transylvania Mania and There Is Nothing Like A Brain!, among many more Transylvanian smash hits.
Leading Pick Me Up’s cast will be former world squash champion James Willstrop, continuing his transfer from court to stage player as Dr Frankenstein after his Captain Von Trapp in Pick Me Up’s The Sound Of Music at Theatre@41, Monkgate, last Christmas.
Starring opposite him again will be Swedish-born Sanna Jeppsson (Maria in The Sound Of Music), here cast as Inga, while Jack Hooper, Mr Poppy in York Stage’s Nativity! The Musical in November 2022, will be Dr Frankenstein’s puppy dog of an assistant, Igor, “the classic Hammer Horror sidekick with a hump that keeps moving around”.
Helen Spencer (Mother Abbess in The Sound Of Music and Dolly Levi in Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company’s Hello, Dolly!) will play Frau Blucher, “the very stern housekeeper with surprising hidden depths”; Jennie Wogan-Wells, the Narrator in York Musical Theatre Company’s Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat last May, will be ingenue Elizabeth Benning, Frankenstein’s fiancée from America. “Think Legally Blonde,” says Helen. “Very conscious of her image; very high maintenance, throwing a spanner in the works when she turns up.”
Craig Kirby (Tom Oakley in Pick Me Up’s Goodnight Mr Tom) will be in Monster mode and further roles will go to Tom Riddolls as Sgt Kemp, Sam Steel as Bertram Bartam and Andrew Isherwood, fresh from directing Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None for Pick Me Up last September, can be spotted as The Hermit as well as directing.
A supporting ensemble will play Transylvanians, students and more besides. Choreography is by Ilana Weets and the orchestra will be led by musical maestro Sam Johnson.
Readman had to call off Pick Me Up’s Halloween double bill of Emma Reeves and Lucy Potter’s The Worst Witch and Young Frankenstein at the Grand Opera House due to unforeseen circumstances. It has not been possible to re-mount Rosy Rowley’s production of The Worst Witch, featuring a young cast, but Young Frankenstein will take over the JoRo slot allocated originally to Pick Me Up’s now jettisoned production of Chicago, whose principal casting was in place, but whose rehearsals were yet to start.
Helen Spencer is relishing the resumption of rehearsals for Young Frankenstein. “Ilana had already put us through a huge amount of tap-dancing work: a very delayed return to tap in my case, having not done it since school, and she’s been very patient,” she says. “We’re having such fun again.
“Young Frankenstein is very silly with some brilliant numbers and really vibrant comedy, and we’re very lucky to have such amazing actors. Robert says it’s the best principal cast he could have wished for, such a safe pair of hands and so skilled that it would have been such a shame not to have done it. Thankfully we’re going ahead in January.”
Pick Me Up Theatre in Young Frankenstein, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, January 31 to February 32024, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk
NEWSFLASHES…Curtains…The Hollywood Sisters…Joseph Rowntree Theatre Musical Theatre Awards…Musicals In The Multiverse…
JOSEPH Rowntree Theatre Company’s next show will be Curtains, the 2007 Broadway musical mystery comedy with a book by Rupert Holmes, lyrics by Fred Ebb, music by John Kander and additional lyrics by Kander and Holmes.
What’s the plot? Boston’s Colonial Theatre is host to the opening night performance of a new musical in 1959. When the leading lady – a fading Hollywood star and diva, who has no right to be one – dies mysteriously on stage, the entire cast and crew are suspects.
Enter a local detective – and musical theatre fan to boot – who tries to save the show, solve the case, and maybe even find love before the show reopens, all without being killed.
Delightful characters, a witty and charming script and glorious tunes await you from February 7 to 10 at 7.30pm nightly plus a 2.30pm Saturday matinee. In the cast will be Steven Jobson, Jennifer Jones, Jennie Wogan-Wells, Rosy Rowley, Jonathan Wells, Paul Blenkiron, Ben Huntley, Jennifer Payne, Anthony Gardner, Chris Gibson and Jamie Benson, among others.
Proceeds from ticket sales on 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk will go to the JoRo.
AFTER raising £1,000 for York Mind at their sold-out December 1 concert at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York close-harmony quartet The Hollywood Sisters – Helen Spencer, Cat Foster, Rachel Higgs and Henrietta Linnemann – willreturn there for another charity Christmas show with special guests next December. Watch this space for further details.
THE inaugural Joseph Rowntree Theatre Musical Theatre Awards will be launched formally in January. Watch this space.
Set up by the JoRo, the awards will run annually. “We’ve put out requests to all the companies that do full-book musicals in York, not specifically at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre,” says York actress, singer and director Helen Spencer, who is helping to run the awards with co-founder Nick Sephton. “At least seven companies have said they want to be involved.
“The way it works, each company nominates a judge; the judges will get together at the end of the year to decide who the winners are, with such categories as Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Choreographer, and then the awards ceremony will be held at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, Oscars style, in January.”
Explaining the concept behind the awards, Helen says: “The idea is to celebrate the amazing musical theatre scene we have in York and the amazing community we have that puts on these shows. This is a chance to celebrate all that creativity in our city.”
TO quote CharlesHutchPress, from the June 30 review, “Musicals In The Multiverse turns out to be out of this world. A sequel will surely follow.”
Happy to report that this Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company revue will return to the JoRo in June 2024, dates yet to be confirmed.
Directed by Helen Spencer, the show’s modus operandi is “playful, radical too, and has the potential to be rolled out again,” as CharlesHutchPress wrote of June’s inaugural two-night run.
“Imagine alternative worlds – a multiverse – where musical favourites take on a new life with a change of gender, era, key or musical style, arranged with glee, joy and flourish after flourish by musical director Matthew Peter Clare for his smart band”. More details of the sequel will follow.
PICK Me Up Theatre artistic director Robert Readman will direct the northern premiere of Mel Brooks’s stage conversion of Young Frankenstein at the Grand Opera House, York, over Hallowe’en.
The York company’s rehearsals are progressing well for the all-singing, all-dancing horror-movie spoof musical that will run from October 31 to November 4.
“From the creators of the record-breaking Broadway sensation The Producers comes this monster new musical comedy,” says Robert. “The comedy genius, Mel Brooks, has adapted his legendarily funny 1974 film into a brilliant stage creation of Young Frankenstein. I saw the West End production and loved it.”
Grandson of the infamous Victor Frankenstein, Dr Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en-steen”) inherits his family’s castle estate in Transylvania.
Aided yet hindered by hunchbacked sidekick Igor (pronounced “Eye-gore”), leggy lab assistant Inga (pronounced normally), devilishly sexy Frau Blucher (Neigh!) and needy fianceeElizabeth, Frederick finds himself filling the mad scientist shoes of his ancestors, striving to fulfil his grandfather’s legacy by bringing a corpse back to life.
“It’s alive!” he exclaims as his experiment yields a creature to rival his grandfather’s monster. Eventually, and inevitably, this new monster escapes. “Hilarity abounds,” promises Robert, in Young Frankenstein’s combination of madcap success and monstrous consequences.
Working in tandem with Thomas Meehan, Brooks gleefully reanimates his horror-movie send-up of Mary Shelley’s novel with even more jokes, set-pieces and barnstorming parody songs that stick a pitchfork into good taste. Among those songs will be Puttin’ On The Ritz, Please Don’t Touch Me, He Vas My Boyfriend, The Transylvanian Mania, There Is Nothing Like A Brain! and many more Transylvanian smash hits.
Leading Readman’s cast will be erstwhile world squash champion James Willstrop, continuing his transfer from court to stage after playing Captain Von Trapp in Pick Me Up’s The Sound Of Music last Christmas.
Starring opposite him again will be Swedish-born Sanna Jeppsson (Maria in The Sound Of Music), here cast as Inga. Jack Hooper, Mr Poppy in last year’s Nativity!, will be Igor; Helen Spencer, seen latterly as the Mother Abbess and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, will play Frau Blucher; Jennie Wogan-Wells, the Narrator in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, will be Elizabeth Benning.
Craig Kirby, Mr Tom in Goodnight Mr Tom, will be in Monster mode and further roles will go to Tom Riddolls as Sgt Kemp, Sam Steel as Bertram Bartam and Andrew Isherwood, fresh from directing Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, as The Hermit. A supporting ensemble will play Transylvanians, students and more besides.
“Every bit as relevant to audience members who will remember the original as it will be to newcomers, Young Frankenstein has all the of panache of the screen sensation with a little extra theatrical flair added,” says Robert. “Young Frankenstein is scientifically proven, monstrously good entertainment.”
Pick Me Up Theatre in Young Frankenstein, Grand Opera House, York, October 31 to November 4, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Thursday and Saturday matinees. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.
FALSETTOS, William Finn and James Lapine’s “very Jewish, very gay” 1992 Tony Award winner, had been made unavailable for the British stage after a London production met with opposition over a lack of authenticity and accuracy.
However, negotiations spanning two years have paid off for “art with a point” York company Black Sheep Theatre Productions, whose director, Matthew Clare, has acquired exclusive UK rights to present the off-Broadway hit.
It would be good to see such persistence rewarded at the box office, but York theatregoers’ resistance to try out unfamiliar works is long established. Nevertheless, the support from Wednesday’s audience was admirably vocal from start to finish.
Falsettos pairs 1981’s March Of The Falsettos, a humorous study of men’s immaturity, with 1990’s Falsettoland, a graver piece penned in reaction to the devastating impact of the Aids epidemic on New York’s gay community.
In 1979, New Yorker Marvin (Chris Mooney) leaves his wife Trina (Nicola Holliday) and son Jason (Matthew Warry, aged 13) to live with Whizzer (Dan Crawfurd-Porter), his younger lover. They have known each other for nine months, says Whizzer; ten, insists the older, more hooked Marvin. They are arguing already.
Naively, Marvin expects to retain a tight-knit family. A subject he has discussed with his psychiatrist, the neurotic, insomniac Mendel (James Robert Ball), who in turn becomes a listening ear for latest client Trina. So much so, they marry, setting up the family unit Marvin had envisaged.
All this is expressed in song in a sung-through musical full of Sondheim emotional truths and vexatious Woody Allen humour (especially in Ball’s Mendel). All have their say, not only Marvin and the fast-exiting, exasperated Whizzer, but Trina and Jason too. Mendel listens and listens, cross-legged and looking as awkward as the conversations.
On opening night, sound balance favoured band over voice in this first act, meaning not everything was clear to the ear, for all the heart-felt, often beautiful singing. Such a hindrance to comprehending fully what was going on was detrimental to the show’s impact at this juncture, and the standalone March Of The Falsettos number in luminous white only added to that sense of bafflement.
Ollie Kingston’s choreography was fun here, but that scene came and went like a ghost. Such are the limitations of a sung-through structure, where more narrative would be helpful.
Post-interval, frustration vanishes. The voices can be heard far better; the singing is more dramatic; the songs are superior, as two storylines play out two years later in 1981: Jason’s preparation for his bar mitzvah and Whizzer’s reunion with Marvin under the spreading cloud of Aids.
Into the story, and very welcome too, come Marvin and Whizzer’s lesbian neighbours, Dr Charlotte (Helen Spencer), struggling with the rising tide of Aids patients, and girlfriend Cordelia (Rachel Higgs), forever cooking up another nibble.
Just as Marvin and his family learn to grow up, so Falsettoland is a far more mature piece than March Of The Falsettos. It is better balanced too with the presence of Charlotte and Cordelia being all important. Spencer brings gravitas; Higgs, puppyish devotion, amid the “hospital bed humour”.
Performances all round settle down as the night progresses to match the high quality of the singing. Ball’s Mendel is the comic driving force; Jarry delights as Jason, being pulled hither and thither but remaining single-minded too; Holliday’s resolute Trina handles the big ballads with aplomb.
In a heightened drama without conventional heroes and villains, the gay characters of Marvin and Whizzer are depicted with three-dimensional complexity, devoid of any stereotyping. They play chess, they play squash, they bicker, they learn, their love blossoms, and in turn the stage chemistry of Mooney and Crawfurd-Porter grows too.
Staging Falsettos has been a passion project for Matthew Clare, who leads his four-piece band with suitable conviction from the keyboards, while Kingston’s choreography is alive to both humour and dramatic effect and the building-block set design is practical and amusingly adaptable.
Art with a point? Yes, indeed. Black Sheep Theatre Productions and the JoRo are to be commended for bringing Falsettos to York’s attention. The more variety there is to the city’s theatre portfolio, the better, when playing safe would be the easier path.
Black Sheep Theatre Productions perform Falsettos at 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, tomorrow. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
JOSEPH Rowntree Theatre Company’s summer show is restricted to only two performances. Big cast, bags of energy and enthusiasm, fun idea for a show, and it would surely have merited a longer run.
Decent house last night, and an even bigger audience is expected tonight, with all proceeds going to the JoRo Theatre, as is the case with all JRTC productions.
This one is directed by Helen ‘Bells’ Spencer, who played the lead in Hello, Dolly! in February and now pulls the strings with aplomb.
She pops up in two numbers too (Beauty And The Beast’s Tale As Old As Time with Catherine Foster and an amusing pyjama party revamp of City Of Angels’ What You Don’t Know About Women with Foster, Connie Howcroft, Nicola Strataridaki, Jennie Wogan-Wells and Tessa Ellis).
Meanwhile, her children, Tempi and Lao Singhateh, enjoy a sweet, humorous cameo in Matilda’s When I Grow Up, where adults sing the children’s lines.
The show’s concept is playful, radical too, and has the potential to be rolled out again. Imagine alternative worlds – a multiverse – where musical favourites take on a new life with a change of gender, era, key or musical style, arranged with glee, joy and flourish after flourish by musical director Matthew Peter Clare for his smart band.
The opening ensemble number Pure Imagination, from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, is an invitation for the audience to use exactly that, as songs are freed from the chains of their usual presentation.
Blood Brothers’ That Guy, without a change of lyrics, is now sung by two females, Ashley Ginter and Scarlett Rowley, who later thrives on Jennie Wogan-Wellss’ choreography in the dance number Electricity from Billy Elliot.
In His Eyes, from Jekyll & Hyde The Musical, makes the reverse switch, given to James Willstrop and Ryan Richardson in a stand-out first half duet.
Porgy & Bess’s Summertime blossoms anew in a barbershop setting, Jennifer Jones leads the dance ensemble in a swish Luck Be A Lady from Guys And Dolls, and Nicola Strataridaki has the last word in her slick duet with Chris Gibson in Lady Is A Tramp.
In a shift from major key to foreboding minor, Connie Howcroft deep-freezes Frozen’s Let It Go, the closing line, “The cold never bothered me anyway”, now so chilling.
In the oh-so-right choice of first-half climax, Rosy Rowley rivals Meat Loaf’s braggadocio in Dead Ringer For Love (from Bat Out Of Hell), while a series of men take on Cher’s swaggering responses. Always an over-the-top number, it becomes a company pile-on as everyone joins in, beer bottles in hand, and heavy metal-haired guitarist Mickey Moran strides to the front for a rock god solo. Moran, by the way, is outstanding throughout.
The second half opens in Matilda’s classroom before Jennie Wogan-Wells delivers the night’s most moving solo: transforming Les Miserables’ Bring Him Home into a mother’s prayer for her son to return safely from the First World War trenches.
Nick Sephton’s It’s All Coming Back To Me Now (from Bat Out Of Hell) is powerfully, sombrely reflective, Rachel Higgs’s Part Of Your World, from The Little Mermaid, is the second belter to benefit from the switch from major to minor; Steven Jobson and Richardson make you know I Know Him So Well in a new way and Rosy Rowley and Abi Carter likewise transform La Cage Aux Folles’ Song On The Sand.
The most impactful reinvention of all, made all the punchier by Wogan-Wells’s choreography, is Cell Block Tango, where Richard Goodall, Gibson, Richardson, Jack James Fry, Jobson and Willstrop’s murderers in toxic orange prison overalls brag about their deeds, as the dancers strut around them in familiar Chicago style.
Tessa Ellis turns Beauty And The Beast’s Evermore into a Sixties ballad in Dusty Springfield or Petula Clark style; Howcroft, superb again, and Wogan-Wells vie for centre stage in The Wild Party’s Let Me Drown, and Rosy Rowley has the audience on its feet, after some insistent cajoling, for the finale, as she deepens Frankie Valli’s lead vocal in Jersey Boys’ Who Loves You?
Musicals In The Multiverse turns out to be out of this world. A sequel will surely follow.
Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company in Musicals In The Multiverse, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, tonight (30/6/2023) 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 501395 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
Coming next from Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company
JOSEPH Rowntree Theatre Company will present a full-scale production of the musical whodunit Curtains, from the creators of Cabaret and Chicago, Fred Ebb and John Kander, at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, from February 7 to 10 2024.
British-American composer, singer-songwriter, dramatist and author Rupert Holmes wrote the book for this 2006 comedy mystery set in the 1950s. Ebb ebbed away (RIP September 11 2004) before its completion.
The song What Kind Of Man? attacks theatre critics. Ouch!
JOSEPH Rowntree Theatre Company’s summer fundraising show, Musicals In The Multiverse, will be their “most ambitious concert production ever”.
Staged at the JoRo on June 29 and 30, this out-of-this-universe show will be directed by Helen Spencer, last seen on that stage in the title role of JRTC’s Hello, Dolly! in February.
“We have some of the best talent York has to offer in our 36-strong cast, so it’s been a joy to cast,” says Helen. “We were delighted after the success of Hello, Dolly! to welcome a lot of new members and this concert is the perfect showcase for the ever-growing JRTC as we invite the Yorkshire community to this epic show.
“It’s our ‘most ambitious’ concert in that it’s the biggest cast we’ve had for a summer show and it’s much more of a production than just a concert: more numbers, more choreography, more cast members, and the concept itself is more ambitious and challenging.”
Introducing the show’s concept, she says: “Musicals In The Multiverse will be an exciting evening of musical theatre favourites with a twist. In the parallel universes of this musical multiverse, you’ll hear the songs that you know and love, but with their traditional presentation turned on its head, so they are different but still recognisable. This means gender swaps, minor to major key swaps, musical style swaps and more!
“The concept came from a conversation among JRTC members about songs they would love to sing but would never get the opportunity to do so in a fully staged musical production, for example due to the gender, age etc of the character in the original setting.
“We pride ourselves on being an inclusive and welcoming artistic space for all. The concept for this show allows our wonderfully talented and diverse cast to perform songs that explore and celebrate who they are, to push some of the traditional musical theatre boundaries and ultimately honour some of the best musical songs ever written.”
Accompanied by a five-piece band, Helen’s cast will perform a mixture of solos, duets, small group and full ensemble numbers on a set list featuring songs from Les Miserables, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Rent, Blood Brothers, Company, Bat Out Of Hell, The Little Mermaid, Jersey Boys, Chicago, Guys And Dolls, Beauty And The Beast, Frozen and Billy Elliot.
“As well as showstopping songs from a whole cast bursting with vocal talent, our strong core of dancers will perform several spectacular featured dance numbers, such as Electricity from Billy Elliot,” says Helen.
“Every song in the show will have at least one twist. Our tagline ‘Expect the unexpected in the multiverse’ is absolutely right. The most basic shift will be from male to female voice, for which we have to change the key. Then we have musical style changes for songs that were classical or musical theatre pieces into jazz or blues numbers.
“There are era swaps too, moving songs contextually into a different era so that the words take on a different meaning. Bring Him Home, from Les Miserables, is moved from 19th century France to Second World War Britain, sung beautifully by Jennie Wogan-Wells as a mother to her son on the front, wanting to bring him home safely.”
In the shift from major key to minor, two Disney numbers change dramatically. “Frozen’s Let It Go, sung by Connie Howcroft, and Little Mermaid’s Part Of Your World, sung by Rachel Higgs, take on a more sinister, evil vibe,” says Helen. “Let It Go becomes a much darker song, less Disney, more jazz.”
Focusing on the gender swaps, Helen says: “Often we’ve not changed the gender within the song, so the sexuality of the song becomes different. For example, Rosy Rowley sings Meat Loaf’s Dead Ringer For Love from Bat Out Of Hell and takes Frankie Valli’s lead vocal in Who Loves You from the musical Jersey Boys.
“That’s one of the things we’ve loved about the rehearsal process: people have the chance to sing songs they now feel comfortable with, so we’re proud of supporting of that aspect of the show, because of the gender diversity in the cast.”
As consultant psychiatrist and JRTC regular Helen swaps Dolly’s red feathers for the director’s hat, she is joined in the production team by musical director Matthew Clare, choreographer Jennie Wogan-Wells and assistant musical director James Ball.
“It’s a formidable new creative team for this adventure,” says Helen. “I have a huge amount of professional experience as a performer, vocal coach and company manager and I’m delighted to be taking the reins for this exciting project.
“Well known on the York musical circuit as a director, musical director and musician, this is Matthew’s first production with JRTC. However, he has close ties with the cast and the company, and he is most excited to be writing unique and innovative arrangements of some all-time favourites.
“I approached Matthew, who I’d worked with before, as he’s very good at rearranging music and parts and that’s what we needed for this show, altering songs in some way. Some of his arrangements are absolutely stunning, some are challenging to sing: he never does anything easy!”
As for choreographer Jennie, Helen says: “She has been a key figure in JRTC for many years, both on and off the stage, and we’re thrilled to have her experience, energy and vision as the choreographer in the multiverse.
“We’re super-super happy to have Jennie doing it as she’s a really strong dancer in JRTC shows and she’d expressed a wish to get more involved in the choreography. She has the imagination to run with an idea, which is perfect for this show.
“We’ve also been lucky to get some really good dancers so that it’s not just a stand and sing show but has lots of great dancing in it.”
Helen will feature in the show in a “very tiny way”. “I’ll be performing in a fun number from City Of Angels, What You Don’t Know About Women, which is usually sung as a duet, but we’re doing it as a sextet where we’ve changed it from the 1930s to the modern day as a pyjama party for women bitching about men!
“I’m only doing it because I was feeling jealous about not doing anything at all on stage, though I’m a believer in stepping back as the director and giving everyone in the company as much chance as possible to shine,” she says.
“It felt right to do that as we’re determined to have featured parts for everyone, even if its’s just a featured line or a highlighted moment to show what an amazing company we’ve put together.”
Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company in Musicals In The Multiverse, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, June 29 and 30, 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk. All profits go straight back the Joseph Rowntree Theatre.
Abi Carter; Alex Schofield; Ashley Ginter; Ben Huntley; Catherine Foster; Charlotte Wetherell; Chris Gibson; Connie Howcroft; Dan Crawford-Porter; Ellie Carrier; Helen Barugh; Jack James Fry; Jai Rowley; James Willstrop; Jen Payne; Jennie Wogan-Wells; Jenny Jones; Jono Wells; Kat Dent; Kathryn Lay; Lorna Newby; Meg Badrick; Nick Sephton; Nicola Strataridaki; Pamela Bradley; Rachel Higgs; Richard Goodall; Rosy Rowley; Ryan Richardson; Scarlett Rowley; Steven Jobson; Tessa Ellis; Vanessa Lee and Victoria Beale.
Did you know?
HELEN’S children, Temperance and Laertes Singhateh, aged ten and seven, will be singing in the show. “In When I Grow Up, from Matilda, adults will sing Matilda’s lines and Tempi and Laertes will do teacher Miss Honey’s lines, because the concept is, we’re all children but we happen to grow up,” says Helen. “It realy changes the song doing it this way.”
Did you know too?
HELEN Spencer worked in theatre professionally, touring Europe in her 20s, having studied for a music and drama degree.
She has been a consultant psychiatrist for 12 years since changing her career path. Initially she combined performing with her medical studies but then decided psychiatry should be her focus.
Now she is embracing performing and directing anew. “I love psychiatry, working for the NHS in my job, but part of my well-being is doing music and drama, so it’s good to be doing that too. If I don’t do it, I’m sad,” she says. “Being busy and happy is fine by me.”
Hello, Dolly!, Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm, 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk
THE Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company’s fifth production as the JoRo’s in-house fundraising troupe since 2017 is their “most ambitious yet” and first to be directed by company regular Kathryn Lay.
She brings experience of directing for several Gilbert & Sullivan companies to the task, along with a familiar right-hand man for this bright and breezy production, husband Martin Lay, a figure in constant motion in white tie and tails as conductor and musical director in the dozen-strong orchestra pit.
Hello, Dolly!, with its book by Michael Stewart and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, had its day as the longest-running show on Broadway after its 1964 debut, further buoyed by Gene Kelly’s 1969 film starring the irrepressible Barbra Streisand.
Based on Thornton Wilder’s 1938 farce The Merchant Of Yonkers, re-written as The Matchmaker in 1954, it is a lightweight, gently amusing piece, not dissimilar in spirit to those works from the other side of the Big Pond, G&S’s light operas. Or, you could call it “an absolute hoot”, as the JoRo’s publicity puts it.
The setting is 1885 New York, where wily widow and meddling matchmaker Dolly Levi (Helen Spencer) has her eye on hooking tight-fisted half-a-millionaire Horace Vendergelder (Alex Schofield), a man short on joy and even shorter on humour.
Ever chirpy Dolly has calling cards for all manner of skills she claims to have, but resourcefulness is her primary asset, along with an ability to confuse all around her in pursuit of her goal. Spencer triumphs, both in song, especially her ballads, and as leading lady with an artful yet appealing air and bags of brio. Vandergelder is a stick in the mud, all the more so for Schofield playing him so straight.
The path to love may not run smoothly, but Hello, Dolly! is giddy with a supporting bill of billing and cooing involving Stuart Sellens’s Cornelius Hackl and Jennie Wogan-Wells’s Irene Molloy, alongside Jamie Benson’s Barnaby Tucker and Jennifer Jones’s Minnie Fay. They make a swell foursome, amusing, smartly attired and characterful in their singing.
“Flouncing around in a feather boa”, Sophie Cooke is a good sport as Ernestina, the butt of Dolly’s meddling with a voice to launch a thousand cough lozenges. Abigail Atkinson and Jonathan Wells make their mark too as artist Ambrose Kemper and young Ermengarde.
Supporting roles and ensemble players add to the jollification, particularly in the big numbers, whether beneath twirling brollies or on waiter duty in Lorna Newby’s lively choreography.
Tickets are in limited supply for tonight’s show and tomorrow’s matinee with better availability for tomorrow night’s finale. All proceeds go back to the JoRo in support of York’s community theatre and the chance to put on more big musicals with big casts to match.
THE Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company are putting on their Sunday best from tonight until Saturday in Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s Broadway classic Hello, Dolly!.
This 1964 musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 farce The Merchant Of Yonkers will be staged by the JoRo’s in-house fundraising company with glitz, glamour and a troupe of tap-dancing waiters in their most ambitious performance to date.
Noted for such musical theatre favourites as It Only Takes A Moment, Put On Your Sunday Clothes and the title song, Hello, Dolly! follows strong-willed widow and self-proclaimed meddling matchmaker Dolly Levi in her wooing of wealthy but tight-fisted Horace Vandergelder, while she spreads joy and confusion among everyone she encounters in 1885 New York.
Premiering on Broadway on January 16 1964 with Carol Channing in the title role, Stewart and Herman’s show played for 2,844 performances, making it – at the time – the longest-running Broadway musical in history.
The show has been revived several times on the New York stage, most recently in 2017 with Bette Midler in the title role, while Barbra Streisand famously starred in Gene Kelly’s 1969 film version.
Playing Dolly for the Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company (JRTC) will be Helen Spencer, a regular in the company’s shows and on the wider York theatre scene, who works as a psychiatrist in the NHS.
Hello, Dolly! will be even more special for her, beyond the lead role, because she will be sharing the stage with her two children in their first theatrical performance.
This will be JRTC’s fifth full-scale production, following on from their flash, bang, walloping hit Kipps: The New Half A Sixpence Musical last February, with a continuing focus on producing high-quality, low-budget productions to maximise profits to give every penny straight back to the JoRo.
Taking the reins this time is Kathryn Lay, who steps off the stage to make her JRTC directing debut, alongside her husband Martin Lay as musical director. Both have been performing with the company since its inception in 2017.
“Hello, Dolly! perfectly showcases the company’s diverse and talented members,” says Kathryn. “There’s a large ensemble, which has allowed us to embrace our inclusive ethos, and the variation in roles really plays to everyone’s strengths. It’s a feel-good musical and the cast and creative team are having a wonderful time bringing it to life.
“The Joseph Rowntree Theatre is such a valuable asset for the York community, helping make theatre accessible for wider audiences. So, as well as being treated to a wonderful evening of entertainment, you’ll also be supporting a great cause and helping to play a part in keeping theatre alive in York.”
Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company, Hello, Dolly!, at Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, February 8 to 11, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee.Tickets: £15, under 18s, £13, on 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company’s cast for Hello, Dolly!
Dolly Levi: Helen Spencer
Horace Vandergelder: Alex Schofield
Cornelius Hackl: Stuart Sellens
Irene Molloy: Jennie Wogan-Wells
Barnaby Tucker: Jamie Benson
Minnie Fay: Jennifer Jones
Ambrose Kemper: Jonothan Wells
Ermengarde: Abigail Atkinson
Ernestina: Sophie Cooke
Rudolph: Nick Sephton
Mrs Rose/Ensemble: Vanessa Lee
Judge/Manny/Ensemble: Ben Huntley
Clerk/Ensemble: Lois Cross
Louis/Ensemble: Cameron O’Bryne
Harry/Ensemble: Gary Bateson
Hank/Ensemble: Jack James Fry
Ensemble: Michelle Atkinson; Helen Barugh; Victoria Beale; Pamela Bradley; Ashley Ginter; Lorna Newby; Jennifer Payne; Susanne Perkins; Zoe Sellens; Heather Stead and Jane Woolgar
Pick Me Up Theatre in The Sound Of Music, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, until December 30. Performances: 7.30pm, December 19, 21, 23, 27, 28 and 29; 2.30pm, December 20, 22, 27, 29 and 30. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk
THIS is Theatre@41’s Christmas show, as signified by the seven fairy-lit fir trees on director-designer Robert Readman’s end-on stage.
Those trees evoke both the hills, alive with the sound of music, and the home, one for each von Trapp child.
However, although it may Christmastide, just as with 1938’s rising tide of Nazism in Austria, the hills and the cities in 2022 are all too alive with intolerance, extremism and anything but music.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical was last staged in York by Nik Briggs’s York Stage Musicals in April 2019 at the Grand Opera House on a grander scale. Readman has gone for a more intimate performance, the audience around the perimeter settling into deeply comfy chairs more normally to be found in smart houses, but being confronted by unsettling Nazi insignia, from uniforms to Swastika flags and armbands and a hale of heils.
This heightens the beauty of the mountain setting, the purity and devotion of the nuns, the love among the children, the goodness of Maria and the resolute political convictions of Austrian naval captain Georg von Trapp, when countered by the strangling grip of Nazism.
It also enhances the pleasure of watching the performers, when so close up, all the better for facial expressions in a musical where song and dance numbers are never more than gather-round family sized in Jessica Sias Wilson’s choreography.
Led by Helen Spencer’s Mother Abbess, the choral singing of the Nonnberg Abbey nuns has a haunting stillness, and even the beloved How Do We Solve A Problem Like Maria? is more driven by the singing than movement. Sister Act, it aint!
Spencer’s Climb Ev’ry Mountain, once taken to the chart peak by Shirley Bassey, is sung with heart and matriarchal concern, in keeping with the character, rather than as a showstopper, but is all the more moving for that interpretation.
The two leads could not have been better cast. Since making her York debut in The 39 Steps in November 2021, Swedish-born Sanna Jeppsson has rapidly ascended the York theatrical circuit, showing diversity, equally adept in comedy and drama, and now revealing her talent for musicals too.
A radiant stage presence, she shines as Maria Rainer, the unsure trainee nun who finds her true calling with the von Trapp children, as the young nanny with nonconformist ideas, bursting with love and kindness, independent, strong-willed thinking, a zeal for nurturing, and a delight in bringing joy, yet we are always aware too that she is learning, as much as they are learning from her.
Her Maria is full of good humour too, her singing uplifting in The Sound Of Music, light, bright and playful in the set-pieces with the von Trapp children, My Favourite Things and Do-Re-Mi.
James Willstrop has been making the headlines this year…for his sporting prowess, swishing all before him on the squash doubles court as world champion and Commonwealth games gold medallist, but he has another string to his bow as an actor on the stages of Harrogate and West Yorkshire.
Now he makes his York debut as widowed Captain von Trapp. Tall, commanding, carrying off a suit with an air about him, he begins with righteous austere authority, issuing orders to staff and children alike on his whistle, but warming under Maria’s influence, while never wavering from his bold stance against Nazism.
He has a lovely tenor too, best expressed in Edelweiss, and is handy with strings too, this time the guitar, not the squash racket. Word has it, he is keen to do more with Pick Me Up next year.
Elsa Schraeder might be seen as the female short-straw role, but Alexandra Mather brings more than Viennese airs and graces to the sometime sourpuss, the children’s putative “new mother”. There is ice but shards of haughty humour too, and her operatic voice has crystalline clarity.
Andrew Isherwood’s “political cockroach” Max Detweiler is dextrous rather than sinister, dapper, flamboyant, peppering his performance with a comic edge more usually to be found in the Emcee in Cabaret.
Daisy Winbolt-Robertson impresses as wilful Liesl von Trapp (a role shared with Emily Halstead), as does Sam Steel as Rolf Gruber, the naïve delivery boy who takes up the Nazi cause (in a role share with Jack Hambleton).
Readman has assembled three sets of von Trapp children (Teams Linz, Graz and Vienna). Saturday night was Team Linz’s turn, and how they excelled, working so delightfully with Jeppsson’s Maria, yet blossoming individually too, especially Poppy Kay’s Brigitta.
Natalie Walker’s five-piece band may be out of sight, behind a screen, but they play their part to the full, those so-familiar songs flying high on flute, trumpet, clarinet, keys and percussion.
Readman and Carolyne Jensen’s costumes are top drawer, from Von Trapp and Detweiler’s suits to Schraeder’s dresses. Look out too for the children’s clothes made out of curtains.
Readman surrounds the audience with tied-back drapes and floral decorations, a typically theatrical flourish to his design, to go with those glittering trees and steps. The lighting signifies each change of tone too.
Plenty of matinees as well as evening performances affords ample opportunity to visit Theatre@41 over the festive season for the best of Readman’s three productions in quick succession (after Matilda The Musical Jr and Nativity! The Musical).
YORK Musical Theatre Company will offer escapism to Hollywood’s golden era after release from the pandemic lockdowns at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York.
The classic American cinema of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s will be explored in song in the slick and sophisticated six-hander Hooray For Hollywood! from November 8 to 10.
Devised and directed by Paul Laidlaw, the piece was first staged at York Theatre Royal Studio in 2007, and now Laidlaw reignites his show with a cast of six – Richard Bayton, Cat Foster, John Haigh, Rachel Higgs, Henrietta Linnemann and Helen Spencer in a nostalgic, whirlwind journey through the sounds of a bygone era from the MGM, Warner Bros, RKO and Universal studios.
“Packed with a classic collection of love songs, torch songs and comic numbers, Hooray For Hollywood! covers iconic artists such as Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra to name just a few,” says Laidlaw, who recalls the premiere 14 years ago.
“We’ve actually performed the show at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre before, as well as at the York Theatre Royal Studio. As we head into our 120th year next year, it felt right to be a bit nostalgic and look back at some of our original pieces that audiences loved and revive them for new audiences.
“We loved performing The World Goes ’Round a few years ago and this show has a similar feel in that it’s a small cast and is fast paced and slick but will take the audience on a magical musical journey.”
In the lead up to next month’s performances, Laidlaw’s cast members have been Puttin’ on the Ritz in a photo-shoot at the Nola jazz restaurant and bar in Lendal, designed to evoke the glitz and glamour of vintage Hollywood.
“Housed in the old congregational chapel on Lendal, the gold, mirrored decor of Nola was the perfect setting as the cast of six brushed up their white tie, tails and top hats – so to speak! – and posed with martini glasses in the 1920s’ Art Deco atmosphere,” says publicity officer Anna Mitchelson.
“Richard, Cat, John, Rachel, Henrietta and Helen are now deep into rehearsals for the show, learning intricate harmonies and weaving famous Hollywood melodies together in a unique and clever way.”
Tickets for the 7.30pm performances cost £15, £12 for age 18 and under, on 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.