KANDER & Ebb wrote Cabaret, Chicago and Frank Sinatra’s signature song, New York, New York.
In truth, Curtains is not on a par with those peaks, being a musical, satirical comedy and whodunit rolled into a play within a play that excels at none of them.
A recipe with so many rich ingredients might have even Paul Hollywood worried, and what happens here is that nothing quite satisfies, although that is no fault of the Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company’s exuberant cast, director Alex Schofield, musical director Scott Phillips and orchestra alike.
The comedy sometimes has to strive too hard in its clunky send-ups of theatre group tropes and murder mysteries alike. Under Scott Phillips’s ceaselessly exuberant musical direction, his wind and brass players are full of oomph, as the songs are given maximum welly, particularly by Jennie Wogan-Wells’s Georgia Hendricks, Jennifer Jones’s Niki Harris and Rosy Rowley’s redoubtable Carmen Bernstein, but they fall well short of K&E’s Seventies’ best.
The whodunit interweaves with the hapless play within a play, a boisterous but seemingly plotless Western by the name of Robbin’ Hood, but it never has the grip, rising tension or intrigue of a Christie murder mystery. The more the plot thickens, somehow the more it doesn’t, because the musical must go on, in theatre tradition…but just too much is going on.
This 2007 American musical, with a book by Escape (The Pina Colada Song) hitmaker Rupert Holmes, is set in 1959, backstage and on stage at the Colonial Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts, where the exasperating, line-forgetting leading lady of a new musical mysteriously suddenly dies (much like her performance, not so mysteriously).
Everyone, cast and crew alike, is a suspect for forensic interrogation by Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Steve Jobson), the unconventional local detective with a passion for musical theatre. So much so, he keeps making suggestions to improve the musical (within the musical, not the K&E musical itself, which might have been a better idea).
You will enjoy the running in-joke of the song In The Same Boat forever being re-written in search of a better tune before Cioffi has the brilliant idea of running all five versions together in the best ensemble number of the show.
Unlike Holmes’s humour, Jobson has a lightness of touch to his performance, at ease with song and script alike, his Cioffi being plucky and persistent, and suddenly romantically involved too.
In a show where individual performances surpass the material, Wogan-Wells has fun as the indefatigable Georgia, taking over from the murdered lead, while Ben Huntley revels in being the Englishman abroad and aghast, Christopher Belling, the director with the waspish tongue and ocean-wide ego.
Curtains is too long, too convoluted, never as funny as a Mischief send-up, but JRTC’s production values are good, from costumes to lighting and Ollie Nash’s sound design. Choreographer Sarah Colestead, principals, featured dancers and ensemble, are kept busy by the flow of song after song and in turn keep the stage busy with commotion in motion.
As usual, JRTC will be raising funds for the JoRo, adding to the £23,000 donated from past productions. That all helps to keep the curtain up, even if Curtains doesn’t raise the roof, despite the committed performances.
Curtains for Curtains, a whydoit dud, but roll on JRTC’s upcoming shows, Helen Spencer’s second instalament of Musicals In The Multiverse and Beauty And The Beast.
Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
NE Theatre York – or NE Musicals York as they were back then – staged the York premiere of this all-singing version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at the JoRo in November 2018.
More Christmas advert season than Advent season on that occasion, but the show’s return heralds Advent’s arrival on Sunday, and the festive mood is already alive and noisy, like the crisp and sweet packet scrunching that accompanied Tuesday’s opening night.
Scrooge moan over, some things have changed since 2018, some have not. More on the changes later, but first: the cast numbers 60 once more; Steve Tearle is directing and playing the ghost of Jacob Marley in white suit and face paint again, and the Sold Out signs will be greeting theatregoers again and again on the street scene on the JoRo forecourt. No tickets left, not one.
A roll of thunder announces the arrival of Tearle’s Marley on a London set familiar to audiences who saw his production of Oliver!. Temporarily, north easterner Steve turns Brummie to make the obligatory mobile phone pronouncement but with the impish humour that will mark a frenetic, fantastical, phantasmagorical production into which he will throw everything, magical books, bouncing balls and kitchen sink included (metaphorically speaking).
Look out too for the misbehaving chairs and bed in Scrooge’s house, leaping into the air as if propelled by the handiwork of ghosts.
Written by Beauty And The Beast and The Little Mermaid composer Alan Menken, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and book by Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens, the musical began life as a film before being re-created for the Broadway stage, opening at Madison Square Garden.
Its driving force is the modern musical score under Scott Phillips’s enthusiastic direction, but the dialogue fizzes along too – everything is home and hosed by 9.30pm – with Tearle’s Marley as host, ghost and timekeeper.
Changes afoot? The familiar tale of miserable, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemptive journey through Christmas Eve night still takes the form of encounters with Ghosts of the Past, Present and Yet To Be but Tearle has fortified the circus setting first evoked in 2018, while Melissa Boyd’s choreography nods to both 1856 and modern moves for ensemble numbers.
Once more the ghosts are first seen in their real-world guises as a lamplighter (Perri Ann Barley), Ring Master (Chris Hagyard, taking the circus theme further than James O’Neil’s charity show barker of 2018), and an Old Hag (John Mulholland). Note their Christmas colours of snow white, ivy green and holly berry red.
Tearle loves theatricality, spectacle in particular, and here he quite surpasses himself by having Marley wreathed in 100 metres of white fabric, stretched like waves across the stage as he urges Kit Stroud’s grouchy Scrooge to learn the error of his ways before it is too late. Marley’s trademark chains are more like a rapper’s bling adornments by comparison.
Graduating from his 2018 role as Young Ebenezer, Stroud’s Scrooge is mean of voice and demeanour at the outset, his lead performance being alive to both the humour and inhumanity the part demands.
Shocked by what he learns of himself, his Scrooge is pained by the recollections of his younger self, when guided by Perri Ann Barley’s Ghost Of Christmas Past with her coat of lights leading the way.
Ockrent and Ahrens’s book weaves one departure from Dickens’s novella into the plot: the story of Scrooge’s father, John William Scrooge, being sentenced to a debtors’ prison while his horrified wife’s family look on as they sing God Bless Us, Everyone.
Cowering into a ball, Stroud’s Scrooge screams “Mother” (as played by Rebecca Jackson), the stuff of a psychological thriller to counter the pantomimic comedy mayhem that subsequently permeates Mr Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball.
Hagyard, out of luck in October when Bev Jones Company’s Guys And Dolls had to be called off, puts that frustration behind him in a terrific performance, pulling strings as Ring Master cum Ghost of Christmas Present.
Greg Roberts’s clown-wigged Mr Fezziwig and Ali Butler-Hind’s Mrs Fezziwig enjoy themselves too in that first-half climax, while Kristian Barley’s Bob Cratchit and Alice Atang’s Tiny Tim maximise their moments too.
Mulholland’s Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be transforms from Old Hag to flame-maned heavy metal frontman, the shock of the new steering Stroud’s alarmed Scrooge towards the dawn of realisation and change.
Visually arresting, largely playful rather than psychological, A Christmas Carol is a typically vibrant, helter-skelter Tearle production, where the singing and musicianship is of varied quality, the dancing and acting being more assured by comparison.
NE Theatre York in A Christmas Carol, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until Saturday; 7.30pm nightly and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. SOLD OUT. Box office for returns only: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
IF a picture paints a thousand words, then look at the one above. It captures the essence of NETheatre York.
That stage looks busy, very busy, bursting with happy faces, everyone revelling in performing and being in a group whose love of entertaining York audiences is writ large in every buoyant show. Such is the sugar rush of a Steve Tearle production – he has become the P T Barnum of York – that the impact is almost giddying. No wonder the ‘E’ in NETheatre stands for ‘exciting’.
‘Excitable’ would be true too, maybe even over-excitable, in that desire to delight, with the opening night in too much of a rush at the start amid a few technical gremlins. No doubt those theatrical E numbers will settle down, but the sound balance with so many performers on stage – a cast of 60 – always will be a challenge.
Tearle has found a formula that works at the box office, one that appeals to family, friends and stalwart supporters alike. If you build a production with a big cast, giving opportunities to young performers to cut their stage teeth, as well helping nascent talents to bloom and calling on a stock of regulars, they will come. In big numbers.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and the Saturday matinee have sold out already; Thursday and Saturday night are down to the last few tickets (box office, 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk).
Another factor is at play here: Grease, in a word. Everyone loves Grease, just as everyone loves Abba and Queen, don’t they. Don’t they?! That film, those iconic John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John performances, those songs, are embedded in more than one generation, reflected in the wide age range attending on Tuesday.
Sensibly, NETheatre York (the latest name for NE Musicals York) applied for the extra rights to be allowed to use the opening title song, You’re The One That I Want, Sandy and Hopelessly Devoted To You from the 1978 movie. Out go Drive In Movie, All Choked Up and It’s Raining On Prom Night. In come four songs that all made the UK top three, the John and Olivia duet topping the charts for nine weeks.
Tearle likes a night at the theatre to be a full experience for the audience from the moment of arrival, in this case running a glitter station for sparkling facial adornments. Aptly, your reviewer’s programme sparkled on the Creative Team page, from stray glitter particles as it turned out.
Scott Kendrew, in de rigueur spangly trousers, opens the show, fulfilling his dream to sing a solo song in a musical, performing Grease in the guise of Frankie Valli with an all-American swagger. Soon the stage is populated by the T-Birds greaser gang, the Pink Ladies, more and more Rydell High School pupils and the new, young 1959 intake, under the charge of Perri Ann Barley’s indefatigable head teacher Miss Lynch.
It does provide a wow factor, such a full stage, but this staging comes with complications. The central focus of a scene is not always clear amid so many bodies; voices become muffled in dialogue on one occasion when two performers move beyond the stage apron into the auditorium; peripheral movement sometimes distracts from the principals, Maia Beatrice’s college newcomer Sandy Dumbrowski is too crowded in by the ensemble in that all-important Summer Nights duet with Finley Butler’s Danny Zuko.
The traffic is less heavy, indeed clear, for the confessional, heartfelt solo numbers, emphasising the song and its delivery, whether Butler’s Danny in Sandy; Beatrice’s Sandy in Hopelessly Devoted To You or, best of all, the stand-out Melissa Boyd’s cynical tough cookie Rizzo in There Are Worse Things (I Could Do).
Rizzo is her dream role and it shows. Sparks fly in the company of Calum Davis’s cocksure Kenickie, who revels in his big number, Greased Lightnin, the peak of Ellie Roberts’s choreography too.
University of Hull theatre student Butler and Cleethorpes pantomime star Beatrice first performed together in York College days, re-sparking that chemistry as strutting Danny and a grittier-than-usual Sandy, culminating in the pent-up romantic release of You’re The One That I Want.
Broad humour courses through the somewhat graphic performances of T-Birds Roger (Flynn Coultous in his NETheatre debut), Sonny (Kristian Barley) and Doody (guitar-playing Matthew Clarke). Juliette Brenot’s Frenchy, Mo Kinnes’s Jan and Erin Greenley’s Marty, leader Rizzo’s fellow Pink Ladies, are not content to stay in the background.
Sam Richardson and Chloe Drake play the nerdy Eugene and goody-goody/irritating cheerleader Patty respectively with admirable enthusiasm for such uncool roles. Ellie Roberts’s Cha-Cha and Kit Stroud’s radio jock Vince Fontaine make the most of their cameos.
Musical director Scott Phillips pops out of the pit to transform into band leader Johnny Casino. Director/producer/co-choreographer Steve Tearle turns into Las Vegas Elvis – if Elvis had made it to his silver sixties – for the Teen Angel set-piece, Beauty School Dropout, all in white, tongue in cheek, lights flickering in his cape.
Phillips leads his band – two tenor sax, guitars, bass and drums – from the keyboards with exuberance and a dash of jazz swing. The ensemble, whether speeding through the aisles or giving their all in the routines, relishes every scene.
Some might want Tearle’s Grease to be a little calmer, less frenetic, to let scenes breathe, but just as the show’s Grease car sign was made and sent from China in only two weeks, so this Grease works flat out to deliver its thrills, right down to Phillips’s Grease Mega-Mix party finale, everyone up on their feet busting their John and Olivia moves.
NETheatre York presents Grease The Musical, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office for last few tickets: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatreyork.co.uk
AFTER another name change, NETheatre York begins a new term at Rydell High with a cast of 60 pupils enrolled for Grease The Musical from tomorrow to Saturday.
Formerly NE and before that NE Musicals York and several variations on a New Earswick theme, the company with the “New and Exciting” tag is spanning its scope.
“The reason why we wanted to change the name is because we want our company to be as diverse as possible and to cover as many things as possible, not just musicals, but plays and dance too,” says Steve. A case of NE theatre symbolising any form of theatre.
“Like taking part in the York Community Choir Festival at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre next year and performing at the York Proms in June, when we had our part in both sections on the main stage – and that’s the first time Rebecca [organiser Rebecca Fewtrell] has done that – as well as being on the community stage in the interval. We did selections from Oliver! in the first half and Les Miserables in the second.”
Amid the NamE changes, the company has shown consistency in its choice of production team for this week’s show at the JoRo. Once more, Steve Tearle is the creative director/producer – and cannot resist playing Teen Angel to boot – alongside musical director Scott Phillips and choreographer Ellie Roberts as audiences are transported back to all-American 1959 and the senior year at Rydell High.
After a whirlwind summer romance, Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski thought they would never see each other again but find themselves at the same high school as the T Birds and the Pink Ladies assemble for the new term.
Playing Danny and Sandy will be University of Hull student Finley Butler and Cleethorpes pantomime star Maia Beatrice (her stage name, shedding her surname of Stroud). “We know each other from doing the diploma in acting at York College six years ago, so we have a few shows together under our belt, like The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui Rise, and then last year I did The Wind In The Willows with this company, who I got to join because of Maia,” says Finley.
Maia, 22, from York, will be returning to TaleGate Theatre’s pantomime ranks this winter for Cinderella at the Parkway Cinema, Cleethorpes, playing Prince Charming after her title role in Pinocchio there last winter. “I get all the principal boy parts,” she says of pantomime’s traditional thigh-slapping role. Her thighs? “Very slappable!” she laughs.
For Grease, she was drawn to playing either Sandy or bad girl Rizzo. “I’m used to playing grittier characters that I can get my teeth into,” she says. “But I do feel I’m more of a Sandy with my blonde hair and blue eyes – and Sandy is the dream role.”
Steve chips in: “We’ve not made Sandy as sweet and innocent as she’s usually played.” Such as? “I take Rizzo down…to the floor,” says Maia.
Steve elaborates: “The musical is meatier than the film version, which they cleaned up a little. The original story was much grittier when it was first launched in Chicago, written for a bunch of teenagers. I haven’t gone back to that version, but we’ve kept the grittiness, and as part of that emphasis, the story of Rizzo and Kenickie runs side by side with Danny and Sandy’s.”
Finley, 22, has just graduated from the University of Hull with a degree in drama and theatre practice and will return there this autumn to study for a Masters in theatre making. “The course I’ve done is not just about the acting and drama side but there’s very much a focus on practice, so you can specialise in many different things, and towards the end my focus was on directing and lighting design,” he says.
“Throughout my time there, I directed shows, like doing a children’s theatre pieced called The Forest, where we had to use sign language and stage it in the round. On top of that, I’m now the president of the university’s performing arts society, a post which runs on into the next year as I do my Masters.”
Finley, by the way, will be Steve’s assistant director for NETheatre York’s upcoming production of Fiddler On The Roof when Steve will combine directing duties with playing the lead, the poor Jewish milkman Tevye.
This summer, Finley’s focus is on Danny Zuko and not least on the way he moves. “A lot of it I have taken from John Travolta, those Travolta-isms. Danny is very bold in his movement,” he says.
“But I also wanted to focus on the conflict within Danny, who has this core persona of not liking a particular girl above any other, but then Sandy comes along, and she’s like a thorn, getting under his skin. You find subtle ways to show that inner conflict through his movement as he’s so expressive.”
As for achieving the Danny Zuko look: “I’ve just received the all-important comb!” says Finley. “The styling takes a lot of gel and a lot of hairspray. I must have got through nearly a whole can for the photo-shoot.”
In the cast too will be Ali Butler Hind. “I’m playing the ballet teacher, part of the staff that oversee the pupils and do the scene changes in this production, which is a clever idea,” she says. “We’re there to support the head teacher, Miss Lynch, and I think our presence in this production really helps, especially in the dance contest scene.”
NETheatre York has paid the extra musical rights to be able to use Grease, You’re The One That I Want, Sandy and Hopelessly Devoted To You from the 1978 film. “They’re not normally in the musical but we really wanted to have them,” says Steve. Out go Drive In Movie, All Choked Up and It’s Raining On Prom Night.
“With songs like Hopelessly Devoted To You and There Are Worse Things (I Could Do), the text is incredible and says so much,” says musical director Scott Phillips. “They’re a good example of the how the songs pull the plot along and really show the character too, and that’s why Grease has stuck around down the years.”
From the keyboards, Scott will be leading a band featuring two tenor saxophones, two electric guitars, one bass guitar and drums. “The show verges on modern jazz in terms of its arrangements,” he says.
Scott has arranged a Grease Mega-Mix for a party mood to close the show. “We’re delighted to have been given permission to use it,” says Steve. “People will leave the theatre with that vibe.
“It’s all part of making it an experience to go to this show, whether it’s the glitter station at the theatre, the authentic Fifties’ costumes, or the mega-mix finale. You’ll know you’re at Rydell High from the moment you arrive, and we’ll be breaking down theatre’s fourth wall straightaway.
“We’ve even got a big neon Grease sign on stage in the shape of a car, made and delivered from China in only two weeks.””
NETheatre York in Grease The Musical, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, July 25 to 29, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Tickets update: first night, sold out; last few tickets for all other shows. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk
Who will be playing the principal roles in NETheatre York’s Grease The Musical?
Finley Butler as Danny Zuko; Maia Beatrice as Sandy Dumbrowski; Melisaa Boyd, Rizzo; Calum Davis, Kenickie; Flyn Coultous, Roger;Mo Kinnes, Jan; Mat Clarke, Doody; Juliette Brenot, Frenchy; Kristian Barley, Sonny, Erin Greeley, Marty, Sam Richardson, Eugene, and Chloe Drake, Patty.
Did you know?
LOOK out for Maia Beatrice at York Maze, Elvington, this summer, hosting a trailer ride, playing characters and being a mascot. If you spot Corn on the Cob or the back end of a cow, between now and September 4, that will be Maia.