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.
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!
PICK Me Up Theatre are staging Oh! What A Lovely War to mark the 60th anniversary of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop premiere at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.
Why else Robert Readman and co-director Johnny Holbek are reviving this old stager is not so clear on encountering the veteran work of Sixties’ agit-prop; rather like the surfeit of voices that are sometimes a struggle to comprehend in the absence of head microphones.
Body mics do the hard-working company no favours, especially Ian Giles’s all-important master of ceremonies, whose deadpan punchlines fall flat when dying in the muffled air. In contrast, the regular toots on his whistle could not have been shriller.
Ironically, when your reviewer – seated up on the mezzanine level – couldn’t decipher what the drill sergeant was shouting, it turns out it was supposed to be gibberish, but the joke was lost after the uncertainty caused by the earlier encounters with the lack of clarity.
Oh! What A Lovely War, constructed as a searing satirical chronicle of the First World War, as told through songs and documents in the form of a seaside Pierrot entertainment, was a landmark in British theatre history, prompting the intrigue surrounding Pick Me Up’s revival.
Likewise, Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film account of the working-class Smith lads, Jack, Freddie, Harry and George, seeing initial hope swallowed up by the mud and stench of the trenches, resonated amid the Sixties’ vibe of Make Love, Not War.
From Blackadder Goes Forth to Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Private Peaceful, Sam Mendes’s 1917 to this year’s BAFTA-winning All Quiet On The Western Front, the Great War continues to provoke eloquent, elegiac reflection across the arts and literature.
Oh! What A Lovely War is closest in spirit to Blackadder in the trenches, in its sense of futility, chiming with Winston Churchill’s maxim in favour of dialogue over destruction. “Jaw Jaw is better than War War,” he forewarned, and in turn Oh! What A Lovely War has plenty of jaw jaw about war war, while making a song and dance of it with familiar music-hall songs from the Great War period and hymns fitted out with new lyrics to give them a satirical snap.
Against the John Cooper Studio’s back wall, ever more damning statistics of the body count are typed out across the screen, the factual counter to the officers’ cavalier attitude to so many wasteful deaths of the working-class cannon fodder.
They have the show’s most shuddering impact, ensuring that a sense of righteous anger prevails, as does a haunting sorrow, further enhanced by the presence of a junior ensemble.
However, the strident tones of surrealism, in part set by the Pierrot costumes with their out-of-period elasticated waists, always feels one step removed from connecting. Likewise, you can see the ever-willing cast having to push too hard to make the satire amusing in a show that starts to drag on, like the war itself.
Readman and Holbek’s period-piece production seeks to break down theatre’s fourth wall, often through Giles’s conspiratorial asides, sometimes through music-hall repartee, but the best scenes are self-contained, most notably for the Christmas Day exchange of gifts in No Man’s Land and the grotesque grouse moor shooting-party bluster among those making money out of the war (in a haunting forerunner of Covic contracts).
Inspired by Charles Chiltern’s radio series that combined First World war statistics with songs, Littlewood’s piece was constructed through improvisation and credited to the company of performers. In the spirit of that gestation, Pick Me Up’s multi role-playing troupe of troops is credited by a list of cast names and not by character, and it is very much an ensemble piece, teamwork to the fore, although James Willstrop, Florence Poskett, Alison Taylor and in particular Craig Kirby stand out.
Accompanied by Natalie Walker’s piano-led band, the songs transition from hope to despair, from perky to poignant, from Belgium Put The Kibosh On The Kaiser to I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier.
Reviving Oh! What A Lovely War does not evoke nostalgia and nor should it. Instead, it feels and looks out of its time, like Richard Lester’s 1967 film How I Won The War. Some vignettes still work, elsewhere the satire has tired or lost coherence over 60 years.
What hasn’t changed? War, huh, yeah, what is good for? Absolutely nothing. Except anti-war songs.
Pick Me Up Theatre in Oh! What A Lovely War, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, tonight (6/4/2023) and tomorrow, 7.30pm; Saturday, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
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).
SANNA Jeppsson is following in the hill-loving footsteps of Julie Andrews, Petula Clark, Marie Osmond and Connie Fisher in playing Maria Rainer, the trainee nun turned free-spirited nanny in The Sound Of Music from tonight in York.
The Swedish-born stage and film actress already has given stand-out turns as a mysterious, German-accented femme fatale in Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps in her York debut in November 2021; boundary-breaking Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare In Love in April and scene-stealing Cassandra, the hippy home help, in Christopher Durang’s American comedy Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike in November.
All three were staged at Theatre@41, Monkgate, as will be Pick Me Up Theatre’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s final collaboration, under the direction of Robert Readman, hot on the heels of his delivery of Nativity! The Musical at the Grand Opera House last month and Matilda The Musical Jr at Monkgate in late-September.
From tonight to December 30, Sanna will play Maria opposite 2022 Commonwealth Games squash doubles gold medallist and Harrogate actor James Willstrop’s Captain von Trapp.
Here CharlesHutchPress is alive with a flurry of questions for Sanna.
When did you first see The Sound Of Music, the film or on stage?
“I first saw the film when I was a child, maybe around seven years old, and I remember enjoying it. I thought it was fun and I loved all the songs, still do. I’ve never actually seen it on stage, so this is a whole new experience for me.”
Is the film as popular in your Swedish homeland as it is over here?
“I would say, yes. It’s a classic and iconic, it used to be on TV every Christmas, and I would dare to suggest most Swedes have probably seen it.
“And I’ve heard of sing-a-long showings – though they may not be quite as well attended as a sing-a-long Mamma Mia!”
What do you most like about the stage version as opposed to the film?
“I think the same as with all stage versions of films: the magic of live theatre!”
Are you a Julie Andrews fan?
“Yes! I’ll admit I’m not her biggest fan, but I’ve always found her enchanting to watch and listen to.”
How much do you have to block Julie out of your mind to find your own Maria?
“Since being cast, I’ve resisted the urge to re-watch the film, so I haven’t seen it in years. Instead, I’ve aimed to find the character only though the text in the script. And let myself go on Maria’s journey of finding her purpose, which I think is one many people can relate to in some way.”
What are the cornerstones of Maria’s character?
“She’s a genuinely good person. Honest, loving, and obviously adores music and singing. She wants to do good for all people around her. She’s got a playful side that’s hard for her to control sometimes; she’s clever and witty too.
“I think her religion keeps her grounded and gives her confidence that as long as she’s honest and tries to do good, she can’t go wrong. I think that’s where she finds the courage to speak her mind and confront the Captain when she needs to.”
What is your favourite song to sing in the show?
“Wow! That’s a hard question. I love all of them. I have to say, though, that the songs with the children, Do-Re-Mi and The Lonely Goatherd, are super-fun to do. I basically just get to play and have fun with the kids!”
How have you found working with James Willstrop, squash ace and man of the musicals and theatre in Yorkshire?
“It’s been great! What I’ve most appreciated about James is how calm he seems at all times! Maybe it’s his many years in professional sport, but he doesn’t appear affected by nerves. He’s relaxed and easy to work with, and that helps a lot.”
How does this role compare with your past Pick Me Up and York Settlement Community Players performances? Performing with children is a big part of this one…
“It’s my first musical with Pick Me Up, and also my first lead role in a musical. Also the first time working with children in the cast! Lots of firsts, I’ve just realised!
“As with previous Pick Me Up productions, it’s a strong cast and great production team, the children adding a playful energy to it, which has been interesting and fun to work with!
As there are three children’s teams, each team brings something different to the show, which makes the performance feel fresh and new for every run.”
What’s coming next for you on stage?
“Nothing decided yet, but I have a few auditions coming up in the New Year, so hopefully I won’t have to stay away from the stage too long!”
Pick Me Up Theatre in The Sound Of Music, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, December 16 to 30. Performances: 7.30pm, December 16, 17, 19, 21, 23, 27, 28 and 29; 2.30pm, 17, 18, 20, 22, 27, 29 and 30. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
Did you know?
GRACE Kelly, Doris Day, Audrey Hepburn and Anne Bancroft were all considered for the role of Maria Rainer in Robert Wise’s 1965 film of The Sound Of Music.
Did you know too?
SHIRLEY Bassey had a UK number one with Climb Every Mountain in 1961 as a double A-side with Reach For The Stars.
My Favourite Things has been recorded by Barbra Streisand (1967), Dionne Warwick (2004), Mary J Blige and Kelly Clarkson (both 2013).
WHEN James Willstrop emailed Robert Readman to request audition details for The Sound Of Music, Pick Me Up Theatre’s director did not recognise his name.
Nor indeed was he any wiser when James walked into the York auditions at Theatre@41, Monkgate, but he was struck by his presence, his height, 6ft 4ins, his gait, his demeanour. “I thought, ‘Ah, he might be just right for Captain von Trapp’.”
It was only when Robert returned home to Bubwith and mentioned James’s name to his mother that all became clear. She knew plenty. James Willstrop. That James Willstrop, Squash champion. Highest ranking: number one in January 2012. Lives in Harrogate. She had read his articles in the Yorkshire Post.
From then on, Robert watched his sporting deeds closely, in particular James’s gold medal at the age of 38 in the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games squash doubles at the University of Birmingham squash centre in August.
James, as it happens, had had another string to his racket since October 2015, when he returned to the stage with Adel Players at Adel Memorial Hall, North Leeds, aged 32, in R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, set in the First World War trenches in Northern France.
A year earlier, James had been recuperating from a hip injury, five months off, and in need of a stimulus during rehab. He contacted Adel Players, became involved and found himself taking the part of “a captain suffering with alcoholism whose experiences at the front have destroyed him”, as he told the Guardian in a self-written feature.
“I seem to have caught a bug. I’ve been lucky to have been given the chance. My dad, in jocular fashion, now refers to squash as my second job,” he wrote.
Roll on to those summer auditions in York, and now he is working with Robert Readman for the first time, making his York stage debut, playing Captain von Trapp for the first time, in Pick Me Up’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final collaboration, The Sound Of Music, from tomorrow until December 30.
“Like many, I did watch the movie quite a bit, and I always enjoyed how Captain von Trapp changed so much through Maria, the children and the music,” says James, outlining what attracted him to the role.
“His sadness and anger become positive and he is grateful and lighter again. That was interesting to watch. Then there are the Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes! The music is just pure melody.
“My dad Malcolm died last year and it was a film we watched and saw on the West End together. I still have a text he sent me where he said he thought the captain would be a great part for me to try when I started acting again a few years ago. I sort of laughed at the time but now here I am and I’m sad he can’t see us do it.
“I’d heard about Pick Me Up Theatre through a friend in Harrogate and so, when the auditions came up, I went for it. So glad I did, what a great group.”
James recalls first seeing The Sound Of Music “probably in my teens”. “I loved the melodies first, and then I think I really got the relationship between Maria and the children,” he says.
“Watching it as an adult, I then also appreciate the context, and the threat of the Nazi takeover. It must have been an incredible, uncertain time when many people just had no choice but to support Hitler.
“To do what the von Trapp family did was very brave. Nobody knew what was going to happen in 1938. It’s easy to see now, looking back, but it wasn’t then.”
James took his first steps on stage playing the lead in Joseph And the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at school. “I just remember it was a magical experience. I knew the stage was something I loved,” he says.
“I didn’t act much when the professional squash career took over and then, when I got injured, I started watching more local theatre. I got into it and did lots of plays. “But music and story fused are the thing, and my favourite shows have always been musical, so I started singing much more and as a form of expression it’s the best.”
Should you be wondering, James had no training in musical theatre. “I’ve had very little drama training, except for the odd course, and lots of books and the odd YouTube vid,” he says.
How on earth does he find time to do theatre shows, given his squash commitments? “I have to. I’m slightly addicted to doing shows, so I just have to. There’s no choice,” he says, of his need to squash everything in, having first picked up a racket in his Norfolk birthplace in 1984/85.
“I’m much older now [he turned 39 on August 15], and so I’m not in my prime as a player – and the tournaments are winding down. With a bit of juggling and a very understanding and helpful director (thanks Robert!), I can make it.”
His squash year has gone, in his own word, “well”. Very well indeed, in fact. “Myself and my partner Declan James became World and Commonwealth champions at doubles and England won the Euro team champs, which I was part of in April.
“On the world tour, the ranking is going down [number 25, as of October 2022] but I’m enjoying playing as much as ever,” he says.
“It felt pretty incredible to win that Commonwealth Games gold medal. To go through the highs and lows with Declan, it was so intense. And after all the work we’d done, we were so thrilled to achieve a gold medal for England squash. Birmingham was a blast, it really was. The crowds, the excitement around the games.”
What makes James more nervous? Playing the lead in a big musical or stepping on court in a final? “They both have similar sensations and I think that gives them a great connection and similarity. Some of us just want and love that danger, those nerves and the adrenalin,” he answers.
“In a way, the nerves can be more extreme in theatre because making mistakes is probably more obvious on stage. On court, if you hit the ball out, you can put it right next rally.
“But I guess, on the whole, maybe the nerves are slightly more shattering in squash. There’s a loneliness in competition that doesn’t exist in theatre. You’re sharing it with a group and that’s a comfort.”
James does see how comparisons can be made between the disciplines of singing and squash (apart from them both having strings attached, sometimes!). “People don’t get it but I think there are similarities. Learning to breathe for one! The singing techniques have helped my squash, I think,” he says. “You also need to think about light and shade in the song, and what’s important to the story, just as you do in a squash rally. It mustn’t all be one paced. You have to construct the rally.”
The repetition and practice and the learning of lines for a play is similar to squash practice, suggests James. “The discipline is crucial,” he says.
“Then the match play element is the same to doing run-throughs of a show. In squash, you need to convert your practice into performance, so you play matches leading up to big events. It’s the same in theatre, where you need to run the show fully to find out where you are.”
Next year, James hopes to perform in Noel Coward’s supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit at Ilkley Playhouse. “We’re taking it to the Minack Theatre [in the West Yorkshire company’s 23rd visit to the Cornish coast from July 24 to 27]. That will be exciting!”
Pick Me Up Theatre in The Sound Of Music, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, December 16 to 30. Performances: 7.30pm, December 16, 17, 19, 21, 23, 27, 28 and 29; 2.30pm, 17, 18, 20, 22, 27, 29 and 30. Box office: https://tickets.41monkgate.co.uk/
The Sound Of Music synopsis and back story, courtesy of Pick Me Up Theatre’s programme notes
THE final collaboration between Rodgers & Hammerstein was destined to become the world’s most beloved musical. Featuring a trove of cherished songs, including Climb Ev’ry Mountain, My Favourite Things, Do Re Mi, Sixteen Going On Seventeen and the title number, The Sound Of Music won the hearts of audiences worldwide, earning five Tony Awards and five Oscars.
The inspirational story, based on the memoir of Maria Augusta Trapp, follows an ebullient Salzburg nun who serves as governess to the seven children of the imperious Captain von Trapp, bringing music and joy to the household. But as the forces of Nazism take hold of Austria, Maria and the entire von Trapp family must make a moral decision.
PIck Me Up Theatre’s full cast list for The Sound Of Music