REVIEW: Rowntree Players, Cinderella, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, ‘romping rollickingly’ until Saturday ****

Jamie McKeller’s Cassandra, Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Fairy Carabosse and Michael Cornell’s Miranda performing I Know Him So Well in Rowntree Players’ Cinderella. Picturee: Angela Shaw, York Camera Club

UNLIKE Cinders, you will not go to the ball…unless you have acquired a ticket already. Cinderella has sold out, reward for the ever-rising pantomime pizzazz of Howard Ella’s community capers.

Cinderella may be the most popular of all pantos, but it is the most difficult to write, he contends, on account of the need to fit in so much. “The story is so loved, so full of plot points and favourite moments, it’s very hard to put your own spin on things,” Ella says in the programme notes.

Then add “the breaking of panto norms”: the dame making way for two Ugly Sisters, baddies rather than goodies to boot. Regular dame Graham Smith decided to take a year’s sabbatical, and in his stead comes the new double act of Jamie McKeller, last winter’s Sheriff of Nottingham, re-booted as Cassandra, and Michael Cornell as Miranda, both shaving off their beards but still with a hint of stubble to go with their trouble-making in matching costumes.

Gemma McDonald: Even busier as co-writer as well as show-steering Buttons in Cinderella. Picture: Angela Shaw, York Camera Club

They know each other from bygone days, and they work in step as pleasingly as Layton and Nikita’s Strictly Charleston last Saturday.

Typically spot-on casting by Ella, who has a new writing partner by his side too in Gemma McDonald, the Players’ long-serving daft lass with the auburn bubble-perm clown’s hair and rouge cheeks.

Still on delightfully dimwit duty as Buttons, she carries the heaviest comedy load as usual, leading the slapstick shenanigans in tandem with the Ugly Sisters in the hotel spa, breaking down the fourth wall to bond with the audience, ragging them when they are too slow to respond.

Ella suggests that Buttons is “really the story lead”, and McDonald’s ever-energetic, ever-cheeky performance backs that up.

Sara Howlett’s Cinderella and Laura Castle’s wave-wanding Fairy Flo in Cinderella

The writers were keen to avoid the danger of Cinderella’s traditional story feeling dated while wanting to be respectful to tradition too: hence Prince Charming and Dandini still being played by women, on the one hand, but Barry Johnson’s Baron Hardup owning the rundown Hotel Windy End (cue bottom burp gags from Buttons and corrections on the pronunciation), on the updated other.

This is very much a Yorkshire Cinderella, playing to its York setting at every opportunity. Radio presenter Laura Castle, so impressive in John Godber’s Teechers at the JoRo in March, makes for a feisty, no-nonsense Fairy Flo, while Teechers’ co-star Sophie Bullivant brings personality to the often dry role of Dandini, especially enjoying her switch with Hannah King’s thigh-slapping Prince Charming.

King’s singing is as strong as ever, not least in partnership with Sara Howlett’s resolute Cinderella in the ensemble number Omigod (a splendid lift from Legally Blonde The Musical). Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Fairy Carabosse takes the singing honours, first in It’s All About Me, then in Three Evil Dames with McKeller and Cornell.

Fill that stage! Rowntree Players in an ensemble routine from Cinderella. Note the pun-named plumber on the backdrop. Picture: Angela Shaw, York Camera Club

Johnson’s Baron, Geoff Walker’s lackey Flunkit and Jeanette Hunter’s Queen of Hearts, the Prince’s mother, bring bags of experience and panto panache to these support roles; Bernie Calpin completes a trinity of fairies, and Ami Carter’s exuberant choreography finds the principal dancers, senior chorus and young teams in boisterous form.

Highlights? Cinderella’s transformation scene with Fairy Flo, unicorn-powered carriage et al, is a picture indeed, and what better way to open Act Two than with McDonald leading the show’s best ensemble routine, Flash Bang Wallop What A Picture, followed by Cinderella, Prince Charming and the ensemble revelling in Shut Up And Dance. The hits keep coming with Fairy Carabosse, Cassandra and Miranda sending up I Know Him So Well.

Ella gained Tommy Cannon’s permission to reprise a Cannon & Ball slapstick classic, as Cinderella, Cassandra and Miranda push, pull and drag each other off a wall while striving to sing a romantic ballad. Howlett, McKeller and Cornell look exhausted from all their exertions, the audience cheers rising with each tussle.

Spot the difference: Jamie McKeller’s Cassandra and Michael Cornell’s Miranda in matching costumes as things turn Ugly for the shopaholic sisters in Rowntree Players’ Cinderella. Picture: Angela Shaw, York Camera Club

The costume team of coordinator Leni Ella, Andrea Dillon, Jackie Holmes and Claire Newbald adds fun and flair to the finery, while set designers Howard Ella, Anna Jones, Paul Mantle and Lee Smith turn their hands to all manner of scenes with aplomb.

Musical director James Robert Ball’s band fires up pop hits and musical favourites alike with dynamic delivery, aided by fellow keyboard player Jessica Viner providing the musical orchestrations with her customary zest.

Difficult to write? Maybe, but Ella and McDonald’s setpiece-driven Cinderella is a joyous, riotous start to the York pantomime season. 

Performances: 7.30pm plus 2pm Saturday matinee, all sold out. Box office for returns only: 01904 501935.

Travelling by unicorn: Sara Howlett’s Cinderella, aboard her carriage, heads for Prince Charming’s ball

REVIEW: Black Sheep Theatre Productions in Falsettos, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until Saturday ***

Lovers’ kiss: Dan Crawfurd-Porter’s Whizzer, left, and Chris Mooney’s Marvin in Falsettos. All pictures: Chris Lever

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.

Matthew Warry’s Jason makes a move on the chess set. Is he a pawn in a game between his father, Chris Mooney’s Marvin, and his mother, Nicola Holliday’s Trina?

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.

Nicola Holliday’s Trina with James Robert Ball’s Mendel mid-exercise

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.

Fresh impetus in Falsettoland: Rachel Higgs’s Cordelia. left, and Helen Spencer’s Dr Charlotte

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.

Hospital drama: Dan Crawfurd-Porter’s bed-ridden Whizzer with Helen Spencer’s Dr Charlotte, left, Rachel Higgs’s Cordelia, Chris Mooney’s Marvin, James Robert Ball’s Mendel, Nicoloa Holliday’s Trina and Matthew Warry’s Jason (seated)

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.

How York company Black Sheep Theatre secured the exclusive UK rights to “unavailable” American musical Falsettos

Dan Crawfurd-Porter’s Whizzer and Chris Mooney’s Marvin in rehearsal for Black Sheep Theatre Productions’ York premiere of Falsettos

YORK company Black Sheep Theatre Productions is running a list of Eight Reasons Not To Miss Falsettos in emphatic block capitals on Facebook ahead of next week’s York premiere at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre.

One reason: the limited availability. “Falsettos is a show that is not available for licence in the United Kingdom for normal theatre companies to perform,” it reads. “Falsettos is only available by special agreement with the composer, William Finn, and Concord Theatricals for production by Black Sheep Theatre Productions and is very unlikely to be done in the UK any time soon.

“If you miss this production, you won’t be able to find another one any time soon,” it re-emphasises.

For a barrier-breaking LGBTQ+ American musical where “love can tell a million stories”, that statement only tells half the story. Let director Matthew Clare fill in the rest as Black Sheep stick to their mission of making “Art with a point”.

“It’s been done only once before in the UK by a semi-pro company, off-West End, in London. It lasted for a week – there was a big backlash against it as a very gay and very Jewish musical,” he says.

“No-one in the cast was Jewish and lot of the Hebrew in it was pronounced wrongly, leading to a letter being signed by prominent members of the Jewish community and published in the Guardian. Miriam Margolyes and David Baddiel spoke on the matter, and in the light of that letter, pressure was put on to close the production. That’s what happened.

“Subsequently, the performing right were not available in the UK and that’s still the case, but now I have attained exclusive rights for Falsettos in the UK.”

Father and son in conversation in Falsetttos: Chris Mooney as Marvin with Matthew Warry as 12-year-old Jason

How come? “Concord Theatricals have the rights in America, so I contacted them. That was nearly three years, during Covid, saying when everything gets back to normal, how could I make a production happen?” recalls Matthew.

“They initially said, ‘No, there are no rights in the UK’, but I kept pushing and through thatI got in touch with William Finn, the composer.”

First by email, then in conversation. “I talked openly with him, saying I wanted to be faithful to the piece. He’s Jewish, and we have Jewish representation on the production team,” says Matthew.

“My vision for our production was discussed by Concord with William, and they then said, ‘that’s fine, we agree for you to do it’.”

Permission was granted in spring 2022, a rights fee was agreed and paid, and Matthew then dealt directly with Concord in the UK. “It’s still heavily managed by them,” he says. “I’ve talked to them about twice a month, as I also did Elegies For Angels, Punks And Raging Queens through them, and because of that they’ve now kind of backed off over the last two months.

“They did stipulate that the child in the show – Jason – has to be male and there could be flexibility with other casting, though it all has to be as stated for gender. The cast also has to have an understanding of Jewish customs, such as  bar mitzvahs, and we made sure the cast was au fait with everything by day one of rehearsals.”

Written by Finn and James Lapine, Falsettos is a Tony Award-winning sung-through musical that combines 1981’s March Of The Falsettos and 1990’s Falsettoland  in its late-Seventies, early-Eighties story of Marvin (played by Chris Mooney), who has left his wife, Trina (Nicola Holliday) and 12-year-old son, Jason (Matthew Warry), to be with his male lover, Whizzer (Dan Crawfurd-Porter), and struggles to keep his Jewish family together in the way he has idealised.

Nicola Holliday rehearsing the role of Trina, Marvin’s ex-wife and mother of Jason

“It’s a beautiful and heart-breaking story that explores the definitions of maturity and masculinity through this non-traditional family, and via a character who is immature at the start, as the AIDS pandemic comes to light,” says Matthew.

The cast of seven is completed by James Robert Ball as psychiatrist Mendel Weisenbachfeld, Helen Spencer as Dr Charlotte and Rachel Higgs as her girlfriend Cordelia. Together they must “bring their characters to life and present them in the most realistic and emotionally impactful ways”, as championed in another of the aforementioned eight reasons to see Falsettos.

“In this show, we have a fairly large representation of LGBTQ+ people in the cast and production team, and that brings with it an understanding of the roles and how to play them,” says Matthew of a musical whose characters and roles have played “a significant role in promoting diversity and inclusivity in the theatre community”.

“It’s important that these characters are presented in a realistic and sensitive manner, hooking audiences and ensuring the best possible show for you to watch!

“The themes are timeless, delving into the importance of acceptance, the strength of chosen families, defining masculinity and maturity, and the resilience needed to face life’s challenges. Its messages of love, compassion and unity resonate across the generations and continue to be relevant in our ever-changing world.

“That’s why we did Elegies For Angels, Punks And Raging Queens too. Theatre with a point is the best kind of theatre, and I want people to think and reflect on what they’ve just seen after the show.”

Black Sheep Theatre Productions in Falsettos, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, August 9 to 12, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

Take a seat: James Robert Ball, left, in the role of Marvin and Trina’s psychiatrist, Mendel Weisenbachfeld, with Chris Mooney’s Marvin James 

In profile: James Robert Ball, who is playing Mendel Weisenbachfeld

SUMMING up his role in Falsettos, James Robert Ball says: “Mendel is a middle-aged Jewish psychiatrist, an intellectual, but he’s a nervous wreck, trying to solve his own problems by solving everyone else’s.

“He’s treating the main character, Marvin, who has left his wife, Trina, because he’s gay and has stopped the charade of living a married life with a woman. Mendel starts treating Trina too, meddles his way into the family, then marries her and becomes the new father figure to Marvin and Trina’s son, Jason.”

Assessing Falsettos’ characters, James says: “They’re all very fleshed out. No-one is the hero. No-one is the villain. They each have their own neuroses and manipulate someone else but they all have heart too.

“The show is kind of a close observation of family dynamics and messy modern dynamics at that.”

James is a musical theatre composer and lyricist, musical director, actor, author, piano and singing teacher, pianist, accompanist and “Sondheim obsessive”. “I’m a freelance professional musician,” says the piano, trombone and clarinet player. “When I’m in shows as a musician, I’m a professional; when I’m doing a show like this, I’m an amateur.”

Director Matthew Clare originally had James in mind to be the rehearsal pianist, but his performances for York Stage as Mr Mushnik in Little Shop Of Horrors in July 2022 and Baron Bomburst’s spy Goran in a Vulgarian double act with Jack Hooper’s Boris in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in April demanded further roles. Step forward James’s Mendel Weisenbachfeld.

James Robert Ball’s psychiatrist Mendel in conversation with Nicola Holliday’s Trina in Falsettos

“The core of what I’m good at as an actor is that there isn’t much acting required, because Mendel is quite like me, and it’s a ‘schticky’ character again, having done Mr Mushnik with a similar vibe and similar characteristics,” he says.

Broad, physical humour marked out his double act with Jack Hooper in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “We put a lot of work into that partnership, and particularly for the kids in the audience, it was perfect old-time vaudeville humour,” says James.

“I had a great time working with Jack – it takes loads of effort to look that silly and get that beat going.”

Humour of a different dynamic is at play in Finn and Lapine’s “emotionally truthful” musical, one rooted in verbal volleyball before gradually turning into “hospital/deathbed humour” (or gallows humour, to use a more familiar term). “It’s all about the awkwardness in the moment, like in Woody Allen’s films,” says James.

“Stephen Sondheim is a useful reference here. It’s similar to Into The Woods in how the patter of chatter is translated into song, and how there’s a contrast in song styles with the ballads being more melodic.”

Did you know?

JAMES Robert Ball’s debut novel, A Botanical Daughter, will be published in March 2024. He teaches singing and performance at York Stage School.

Did you know too?

JAMES Lapine has collaborated frequently with Stephen Sondheim, as well as William Finn, in his career as a stage director, playwright, screenwriter and librettist, not least on Into The Woods.

REVIEW: York Stage, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Grand Opera House, York, to Sat. ****

High-flying success: Ned Sproston’s Caractacus Potts at the wheel of Chitty, with Carly Morton’s Truly Scrumptious in the passenger seat and Logan Willstrop’s Jeremy Potts and Hope Day’s Jemima Potts in York Stage’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. All pictures: Charlie Kirkpatrick

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, York Stage, Grand Opera House, York, 7.30pm nightly to Saturday; 2.30pm matinees, Wednesday and Saturday. Box office: atgtickets.com/york

THIS is James Bond author Ian Flemings’s eyebrow-raising 1964 children’s story, via Ken Hughes’s 1968 family musical fantasy film, adapted for the stage by Jeremy Sams.

It would be easy to put the emphasis on the spectacle, the car that floats and flies, with as many special features as a Q-customised Aston Martin for Bond. Certainly director-producer Nik Briggs pulls out all the stops on that score, but his Chitty show has more wings to it than merely its fine four-fendered friend’s airborne adventures.

The “fantasmagorical” spectacle here extends beyond the repurposed scrap-heap Grand Prix car to Damien Poole’s fabulous, fun and funny choreography; the hair and make-up by Phoebe Kilvington’s team; Charades Theatrical Costume’s flamboyant costume designs and the uncredited hi-tech set design, windmill sails et al.

Pulling a Chu-Chi Face: Alex Papachristou’s Baron Bomburst and Jackie Cox’s Baroness

Out of sight, aside from diligent yet playful musical director Adam Tomlinson, is his lush 12-piece orchestra, properly filling the pit with gorgeous musicality for the Sherman brothers’ score.

Above all, Briggs has improved further on the balance between grand theatricality and human personality in West Yorkshire Playhouse’s 2015 Christmas production. Perhaps it would be truer to say “caricature personality”, but the result is a greater connection with the audience.

In particular, this applies to the baddie double act of Alex Papachristou’s arch, spoilt, teddy bear-carrying Baron Bomburst and his brassy Baroness (Jackie Cox), a hammier, kinkier couple than past interpretations, and far funnier than their outrageous banishment of children from their Vulgarian principality should be.

Bomburst’s spies, Boris and Goran, are always  comedy gold, in pursuit of purloining the car for the baron, but they are better still in the hands of Jack Hooper and James Robert Ball, Vulgarian vultures trying to pass themselves off as Englishmen (and even women too).

Send for the clowning spies: Jack Hooper’s Boris gives a lift to James Robert Ball’s Goran

Papachristou, Cox, Hooper and Ball stretch their Vulgarian accents across Germanic vowels with delight and differing, equally amusing results in a send-up where ’Allo ’Allo! meets Mel Brooks’s The Producers.

Such is their broad playing, their comic interplay, their relish for downright silliness, that all four carry appeal for adults and children alike, evil but never vile. Unlike Richard Barker’s Childcatcher, that towering, spindly, grotesque rotter, whose villainy is more threat than presence, given how few scenes he has.

Meanwhile, several saucy jokes fly above innocent young heads, relished especially by Ball and Papachristou, who also rescues a prop malfunction (a telephone wire becoming detached) with an off-the-cuff one liner.

Ploughing a straighter furrow are Ned Sproston’s thoroughly decent inventor and single dad Caractacus Potts, plucky children Jeremy (Logan Willstrop, sharing the role with Esther de la Pena) and Jemima Potts (Hope Day/Eady Mensah), and Carly Morton’s utterly pucker Truly Scrumptious (whose beautiful singing with the purity of a Julie Andrews peaks with her Doll On A Music Box routine, clockwork dancing so exquisitely).

Peachy performance: Carly Morton’s Truly Scrumptious

Throughout, Mick Liversidge’s potty, old-school, restlessly energetic Grandpa Potts maximises his humorous interjections aplenty.

Briggs uses adult and children’s ensembles to the full, testament to the show’s mantra that teamwork makes the dream work, never more so than when Poole’s choreography is in full flow in Toots Sweets and especially The Bombi Samba.

Boris and Goran’s Act English and Potts and the Morris Men’s Me Ol’ Bamboo, Grandpa and The Inventors’ The Roses Of Success and the Baron and Baroness’s Chu-Chi Face are all bursting with character as much as musical flair.

For all the considerable technical demands of a show with a flying car, Briggs and his company take everything in their stride with panache in a dazzling, dapper and delightful family treat for the Easter break. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, bang on.