After successful day at Millthorpe School, York Beethoven Project announces plans for Symphony No. 3 in York and Malton

John Atkin conductiing the York Beethoven Project musicians at Millthorpe School

THE second event in the York Beethoven Project to perform all nine of his symphonies was a “huge success”, says director and conductor John Atkin.

On February 10, 56 musicians spent the day hosted by York Music Education CIC at Millthorpe School rehearsing Symphony No2, climaxing with an informal performance to an audience.

“York Music Education CIC were fabulous hosts; a number of senior students joined the orchestra for the day, and most groups popped in to listen at some point, including the I Can Play! session, bringing music to deaf children,” says John.

“As with Symphony No. 1, the day was very well organised and ran like clockwork, with five sessions of rehearsals, the second being a sectional one where the wind instruments were directed by Jonathan Sage.    

“There were ample breaks between each session with a couple of hundred cups of tea and coffee as well as cake provided by parents and Friends of York Music Education CIC.”

The aim of the project is inclusivity and opportunity. “That’s why it was really great to include some new faces, especially the students who joined us or came into the open rehearsal and maybe experienced a large orchestra for the first time,” says John. “Huge thanks to Dan Hield and all his team.”

The day was particularly poignant for John, who attended York Music Centre as a pupil in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was held at what was Queen Anne’s Grammar School. 

York Beethoven Project’s second day drew 56 musicians

“I first played there in a recorder ensemble as an eight-year-old, then returned as a trombonist in the late-1970s to play in YASSO and the Concert Band, which was a great experience and a good grounding in orchestral playing,” he says.

“I even gave up Saturday morning rugby to play, so it must have been pretty special!  Either way, it was my first step along a career path that’s now gone on 40-plus years.” 

What’s next? The project is making plans to perform Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”, with a 40-piece orchestra at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, on September 14 and the Wesley Centre, Malton, on September 28 in the company of the White Rose Singers.

Billed as An Evening Of Revolutionary Music, these 7.30pm concerts will feature revolutionary music from musicals including Les Misérables, West Side Story, Carousel and Stephen Sondheim works too.

“We’re asking musicians who play instruments that Beethoven wrote for to sign up to the next event, but we really only have vacancies for strings and French horns,” forewarns John.

Player registration forms can be found at: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScZar8bgRoIfMdhbw1fhKizjureEwKjXrz5Gu7dZ5rWrTgBGA/viewform

For more information, go to: www.whiterosetheatre.co.uk

Squash champ James Willstrop tackles ‘mad scientist’ role in Mel Brooks’s spoof horror musical Young Frankenstein in York

Following the science? James Willstrop as Dr Frederick Frankenstein, creator of the Creature in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Young Frankenstein. Picture: Jennifer Jones

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.

Pick Me Up Theatre principals in Young Frankenstein: back row, from left, James Willstrop’s Dr Frederick Frankenstein, Helen Spencer’s Frau Blucher and Jennie Wogan-Wells’s Elizabeth Benning; front row, Jack Hooper’s Igor and Sanna Jeppsson’s Inga. Picture: Jennifer Jones

“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.

James Willstrop: Men’s doubles squash gold medallist at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, his fifth Games

“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.

. “It’s not subtle but it’s a great comedy genre,” says James Willstrop of Mel Brooks’s humour. Picture: Jennifer Jones

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 3 2024, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. 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: NE in Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, 2.30pm and 7.30pm today ***

Steve Tearle: Director, Narrator and Mystery Man. All pictures: David Richardson

THIS is as much Stephen Tearle’s Into The Woods as Stephen Sondheim’s wickedly witty Broadway show in a fusion of York and New York imaginations.

Sondheim rooted his 1987 Broadway musical in a grown-up twist on the Brothers Grimm stories that casts a new light on such familiar fairy-tale frequenters as Cinderella (University of York student Rebecca Jackson); Beanstalk-climbing Jack (Jack Hambleton); a skipping Little Red Riding Hood (CAPA College and PQA York student Missy Barnes/Rowntree Players panto regular Mollie Surgenor); Rapunzel (Juliette Brenot); Snow White (Elizabeth Farrell) and The Wolf (Ryan Richardson, looking not unlike Sam Smith in their Gloria tour get-up).

James Lapine’s book for Sondheim’s songs centres on the plight of the Baker (Chris Hagyard) and the Baker’s Wife (Perri Ann Barley), a childless couple seeking to lift the curse placed on them by a once-beautiful Witch (a towering performance from Pascha Turnbull).

Flour power: Perri Ann Barley’s barren Baker’s Wife and Chris Hagyard’s Baker in NE’s Into The Woods

Venturing into the woods, they must search for the ingredients that will reverse the spell:  a milk-white cow (Erin Greenley, in white jeans and boots), hair as yellow as corn (from Rapunzel); a blood red cape (from Little Red Riding Hood) and a slipper of gold (from Cinderella).

Here they will encounter the fairy-tale folk, each on a quest to fulfil a wish, and into the story come the likes of Cinderella’s Prince (Sam Richardson), Rapunzel’s Prince (Kristian Barley), Cinderella’s Mother (Rebecca Warboys) and the Ugly Sisters, Florinda (Ali Butler-Hind) and Lucinda (Morag Kinnes).

Sondheim steers a path away from pantomime into terrain altogether darker, behaviour worsening, human foibles bursting through, enchantment turning to disenchantment, living unhappily ever after until the denouement. Steve Tearle nudges the playing style back towards panto, without changing the fruitier post-9pm-curfew content.

Missy Barnes’s Little Red Riding Hood: “Something of the Wednesday Addams about her”

He also introduces a young ensemble to swell the company ranks to 50, playing woodland birds and forest dwellers in pointy ears, who gather at Tearle’s feet in his role as string-pulling Narrator and Mystery Man too. He plays free and loose with the script, interjecting adlibs in his north-eastern accent in the manner of a Dame Berwick Kaler pantomime.

Sondheim’s style is deadpan, even noir, as well as being witheringly witty, as paraded in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street too. Tearle’s style is broader, tongue pushed into the cheek in pursuit of “highly camp fun”, typically expressed in the performances of Richardson and Barley’s Princes and Melissa Boyd as Jack’s Mother, although Missy Barnes’s Little Red Riding Hood on Thursday night had something of the Wednesday Addams about her.

In a “big” joke, Helen Greenley’s diminutive Giant’s Wife arrives in massive platforms and a startlingly deep, echoing, discordant voice – compared by one audience member to Mr Blobby – that brings to mind the Wizard Of Oz at the moment he is exposed as a fraud.

Hagyard and Perri Ann Barley play it closest to Sondheim’s tone, while Pascha Turnbull, regularly cast as “larger than life, formidable women”, takes on the bewitching role she has “yearned to play for many years”, combining the show’s most powerful singing with her suitably domineering presence. Not for the first time, Jack Hambleton stands out as one of York’s rising talents.

Bean there, done that: Jack Hambleton’s Jack of Beanstalk-climbing notoriety

Scott Phillips conducts his musical forces with glee and oomph aplenty; Adam Kirkwood’s rainbow palette of lighting complements Tearle and Faye Richarson’s woodland setting with its camouflage gauze and three rotating scaffolding towers, forever on the move, whether occupied by Jack or Rapunzel or whoever.

The fabulous costumes, designed by award-winning Ashington fashion designer Paul Shriek, go with the many shrieks that pierce the sylvan night air.

Experimental, experiential and wildly ambitious, amber-gambler Tearle’s Into The Woods heads deliriously into the weird. It certainly brings a smile, but would the late Sondheim take Tearle’s tribute as a compliment? We shall never know.

Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Steve Tearle leads NE’s cast of 50 into the woods for Sondheim musical adventure

Can they lift the curse? Perri Ann Barley and Chris Hagyard as the barren Baker’s Wife and Baker in NE’s Into The Woods. All pictures: David Richardson

INTO The Woods go York musical theatre company NE as they present Stephen Sondheim’s wickedly witty musical at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, from April 25 to 29.

The New York composer and lyricist rooted his 1987 Broadway show in the Brothers Grimm stories, in a grown-up twist that cast a new light on such familiar fairy-tale frequenters as Cinderella, Jack of Beanstalk fame, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, but this is no time for pantomime.

Instead, with a book by James Lapine, the story is centred on the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, a childless couple seeking to lift the curse placed on them by a once-beautiful witch.

Rebecca Jackson’s Cinderella

Venturing into the woods three days before the rise of a blue moon, they must search for the ingredients that will reverse the spell: a milk-white cow, hair as yellow as corn, a blood red cape and a slipper of gold. Here they will encounter the fairy-tale folk, each on a quest to fulfil a wish.

The tale will be narrated by NE director Steve Tearle, who also takes on a second role as “the Mysterious Man”. “We chose to do Into The Woods as a tribute to the late Stephen Sondheim. It’s a very different show, which I was lucky enough to see on Broadway in the 1990s, though I missed the star turn, Bernadette Peters, as she was on her day off!” he says.

“I loved it! It was so, so funny. High camp comedy really! I put it on the backburner to do, but a couple of years ago we applied for it – before Sondheim died in November 2021 – and we were meant to be doing it last year.

Ali Butler Hind and Morag Kinnes as the Ugly Sisters, Florinda and Lucinda

“We’re so happy we now are as it’s a fantastic musical comedy for all ages with its wonderfully inventive re-telling of some of the Brothers Grimm stories, where Sondheim was thinking, ‘let’s bring out the child in the adult’. Being a family-driven company, it fits in perfectly with our actors from six years old.”

Steve’s New York trip has influenced his production. “When thinking about the set design, I took inspiration from the original Broadway version,” he says. “I wanted the audience to feel like they were also inside the woods, so we’re using rainbow colours and various styles to bring the woods to life.

“Befitting such an epic musical, we have an amazing set design and fabulous costumes, designed by award-winning Ashington fashion designer Paul Shriek, which we’ve managed to buy second-hand for our show. The finesse to Adam Kirkwood’s lighting is phenomenal too.”

Ready to climb the beanstalk: Jack Hambleton’s Jack

The cast plays its part in setting the scene. “We have more than 50 people in the show, and the ensemble really are the set, becoming the woods, so the woods are interactive. It’s a movable set that changes as the show moves through the three simultaneous stories that blend together,” says Steve.

“We’re making the set a lot more personable to the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, making it ‘fit’ the theatre and more experiential, so that everyone there will feel part of the woods.”

Steve’s show will be knocking down theatre’s ‘fourth wall’, the imaginary barrier between cast and audience, several times. “The Narrator has his own posse of children in the ensemble, and they work with him in these fabulous break-out moments, like when we stop the show when he loses the book or he freezes everybody because he’s in control of everything.

Steve Tearle: Director, Narrator and Mystery Man

“That’s like pantomime, but it’s all done with more serious overtones as – spoiler alert! – the show does feature deaths, as well as blood pouring out of a slipper, a toe being cut off and a heel shaved off. We’ll use a sausage for the toe and ham for the heel!”.

Chris Hagyard and Perri Ann Barley lead the NE cast as the Baker and Baker’s Wife, while Pascha Turnbull casts a spell on the audience as the Witch whose curse is the cause of the culinary couple’s woes. Rebecca Jackson plays Cinderella with Sam Richardson as her Prince; Molly Surgenor and Missy Barnes share the role of Little Red Riding Hood; Juliette Brenot is Rapunzel, with Kristian Barley as her Prince.

Further principal roles go to Ryan Richardson as the Wolf; Jack Hambleton, aptly, as Jack; Melissa Boyd as Jack’s Mother; Effie Warboys as Sleeping Beauty and Elizabeth Farrell as Snow White Farrell. “Helen Greenley may be the smallest member of our NE team but she’s playing what you might say is the biggest role,” says Steve. “She’s the Giant’s wife, wearing these massive platforms.”

Missy Barnes’s Little Red Riding Hood

Steve is as proud of his cast as ever. “There are no professionals in the show; we do it for the love of theatre, and we just embrace people and what their capabilities are. We have cast members in the ensemble who have hearing difficulties and are partially sighted,” he says.

“I like to think we give opportunities that other companies wouldn’t give, and we love encouraging confidence among our young performers. We very much wanted to have them in the cast; some had never heard of Sondheim, but they definitely love him now!”

NE [once short for New Earswick, the company’s origins, but now denoting New & Exciting] present  Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, April 25 to 29, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk

REVIEW: York Light Opera Company in Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, York Theatre Royal, until March 4 ****

Razor sharp: Neil Wood’s Sweeney Todd conducting his sharp practice as Julie Anne Smith’s Mrs Lovett hovers in York Light’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. All pictures: Matthew Kitchen

LIGHT and dark combine for the tale of Sweeney Todd, York Light’s heavyweight production to mark both the company’s 70th anniversary and last November’s passing of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim at 91.

In 2016, Robert Readman favoured going dangerously up close at 41, Monkgate. In 2023, director-choreographer Martyn Knight returns Sondheim’s knife-edge musical thriller to a gothic grand scale, large ensemble et al, while adjusting the setting from venal Victorian to gory Georgian at York Theatre Royal.

Costume designers Suzanne Ayers and Jean Wilkinson and wardrobe co-ordinator Carly Price pull out all the stops, aided by Ellie Ryder’s wigs, hair and make-up, and sewing, wardrobe and make-up teams in big numbers. Fantastic work all round.

Full of foreboding: Clare Meadley’s harrowing Beggar Woman

Under conductor Paul Laidlaw, keyboardist Simon Kelly’s organ swells to unnerving, edge-of-the-seat effect, forewarning of the terrible deeds to come in an opening that establishes how important the 30-strong ensemble will be throughout this murder-is-meat musical, whether as feral harbingers, boozy pie eaters or mental asylum incumbents.

The grave mien and embittered baritone of Neil Wood’s ponytailed Sweeney Todd further concentrates the mind on the serious business ahead as he flees Australia to return to East London after 15 years of wrongful exile at Botany Bay, vowing vengeance on the corrupt Judge Turpin (Craig Kirby, reprising his Pick Me Up role with even more insufferable judicial arrogance).

The self-flagellating Judge is the abusive ward to Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (Madeleine Hicks), keeping her like a caged bird: a revelation that brings even more of a cutting edge to Sweeney’s resumption of his demon barbershop business above the worst pie gaff in London town.

Clinging on to love amid the wreckage: Maximus Mawle’s Anthony Hope and Madeleine Hicks’s Johanna

Mrs Lovett (Julie Anne Smith) needs an upgrade from the grit and gristle in her pies; Sweeney is up for a slice of the action, when she turns out to be as manipulative as Lady Macbeth.

Mrs Lovett may be devoid of humanity, but now that there is 100 per cent humanity in her pies, they turn out to be bloody good, celebrated heartily in God, That’s Good, the ensemble high point of a consistently impactful performance as London’s exposed underbelly.

Behind dark eyes and a bustling air, add Smith’s humour, love-a-duck London accent and top-notch singing, and hers is a best-in-show performance, relishing Sondheim’s devilish wit and snappy turn of phrase.

Pie high: Jonny Holbek’s Tobias Ragg, furthest forward to the right, leads the euphoric singing in God, That’s Good!

As the bodies pile up, deposited down the shoot from Sweeney’s barber’s chair with a rumble in the tumble each time he shortens life rather than hair, gradually a macabre darkness of humour permeates the audience response, all the more so for Wood’s Sweeney not changing his countenance . And yet vulnerability courses through his inner turmoil.

Praise too for Maximus Mawle’s Anthony Hope and Hicks’s Johanna in the young love roles, as up against it as Romeo and Juliet, plus a treat of a camply comic turn from Richard Bayton as henchman Beadle Bamford and Clare Meadley’s damaged bird of a harrowing prophetess, the homeless Beggar Woman. Martin Lay has great fun with his faux Italian accent as preposterous, twinkling rival barber Adolfo Pirelli.

Any York production is always better for the presence of Jonny Holbek, and his Tobias Ragg, assistant first to Pirelli then kitchen aid to Mrs Lovett, is a scene stealer here: humour and tragedy, light and darkness, hope and desperation, naivety and madness, all at play in his performance.

Gritty encounter: Julie Anne Smith’s Mrs Lovett entreats Neil Wood’s Sweeney Todd to try the worst pie in London town

Paul Laidlaw’s wind and brass players, together with Kelly’s keyboards and Francesca Rochester and Laurie Gunson’s percussion, bring out all the drama and rich musicality in Sondheim’s score, sometimes luscious, other times juddering and jagged.   

Martin Knight’s choreography matches that musical diversity, adding to the deliciously dark delights of this juicy psychological drama. Make sure to grab a bite of this very tasty pie.

Performances: 7.30pm,  tonight (27/02/2023) until Saturday plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee.  Box  office: 01904 623 568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

By Charles Hutchinson

York Light mark 70th year with cutting-edge Sweeney Todd in Georgian setting

Neil Wood’s Sweeney Todd and Julie-Anne Smith’s Mrs Lovett with their hot-selling new pie in York Light Opera Company’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. Picture:Matthew Kitchen

LIGHT meets dark when York Light Opera Company return to York Theatre Royal from Wednesday in “one of the darkest musicals ever written”, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.

Steered by the familiar hands on the tiller of director Martyn Knight and musical director Paul Laidlaw, the show is set in the Georgian era, rather than the usual Victorian London murk.

In York Light’s 70th anniversary production, Neil Wood takes the title role of the misanthropic barber who returns home to the Big Smoke after 15 years in exile, seeking vengeance on the corrupt judge (Craig Kirby) who ruined his life.

The road to revenge leads to him to open new tonsorial premises above the failing pie shop run by Mrs Lovett (Julie-Anne Smith). Cue a very tasty meaty new ingredient to boost sales in this now cutthroat business.

“Yes, it’s dark and gruesome, but it’s so funny too,” says Neil. “One moment the audience are bent double with laughter; the next they’re in tears. A lot of it comes down to the patter style that’s reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan.”

Richard Bayton, by day in charge of ticket sales for Sweeney Todd as York Theatre Royal’s box office manager, will be playing Beadle Bamford. “Two months into rehearsals, I’m thinking, ‘who is this man? There has to be more to him than how than how he ends up’, so I’ve built up the character, when he’s often seen as comic relief but I’ve looked to make him darker,” he says.

A cut above: Neil Wood’s Sweeney Todd in the doorway of his Fleet Street upstairs premises. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

“I’ve really enjoyed it because it’s always fun to play a bit of a baddie, though the real baddie is definitely Judge Turpin.”

Julie-Anne Smith’s Mrs Lovett occupies the dark side too with her surprisingly delicious but morally dodgy pie contents. “Everyone is damaged in this piece, all except Anthony Hope [played by Maximus Mawle],” she says. “Even Johanna [Madeleine Hicks] is extremely damaged – and living with the Judge, she would be! Everyone else represents the underbelly of London.”

Neil rejoins: “Whether you’re playing Shakespeare’s Richard III or Sweeney Todd, you have to find something you understand in the character. It’s not until he meets the damaged Mrs Lovett, who has her own agenda, that he changes course after being wrongly exiled for a crime he didn’t commit.

“Through fate, he has found his way back home to London to find his wife dead and discover what the judge has done, with his daughter now in the judge’s hands. In that moment, Mrs Lovett manipulates him, and it’s like a puppet being played with, on a knife edge.”

 Julie-Anne says: “You have to push that notion that they’re only human; you have to make that connection with the character you’re playing. At the end of the day, she’s human, she’s damaged. She just wants a cottage by the sea and will do anything to get it.

“That’s why she’s interesting to play because people can never believe the horrific deeds that humans can do, but particularly if it’s a woman perpetrating such horrific crimes, but her humour endears her to the audience – and they’re laughing with her rather than at her. That’s why I like playing the anti-hero, because they’re more complex.”

“People can never believe the horrific deeds that humans can do, but particularly if it’s a woman perpetrating such horrific crimes,” Julie-Anne Smith, York Light’s Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. Picture: Matthew Kitchen

From the maniacal Sweeney Todd to Titus Andronicus, such characters “have always been more interesting, with the best lines”, notes Neil. “We’re just really lucky to have the chance to be doing such roles,” he says.

“It’s also the right time to be staging Sweeney Todd, especially with Stephen Sondheim passing away last year. There’s lots of interest in him again, with Sweeney Todd running on Broadway and the Sondheim concert, Old Friends, with Bernadette Peters in the company, that’ll be on in London at the Prince Edward Theatre for 16 weeks.”

Richard is savouring the meatiness of Sondheim’s lyrics in a show where 80 per cent of Sweeney Todd is set to music, either sung or underscoring dialogue. “They’re so rich in meaning,” he says. “I’ve been able to find new interpretations and new meanings in every rehearsal because you  can read so much into them.”

Neil adds: “It’s such a complete show; the orchestrations are wonderful, and Martyn Knight and Paul Laidlaw have been a joy to work with as they really appreciate what a challenge Sondheim is. That’s why we started in early October on the music, and then Martin came up for a first block of rehearsals from November and has back since January after a Christmas break. You can’t start working on the detail until the words are embedded in you.”

Julie-Anne is thrilled to be putting flesh on Sondheim bones in Sweeney Todd. “I was in a professional group, Lucky 4 You, that performed Sondheim songs all around Yorkshire, and I’d always wanted to do the big duet from Sweeney within the context of the show. Now I can do that with Neil.”

York Light Opera Company in Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, York Theatre Royal, Wednesday (22/2/2023) to March 4, 7.30pm, except February 26; 2.30pm, February 25 and March 4. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

John Barrowman celebrates his musical theatre journey from West End to Broadway at York Barbican next May

“I’ve lived my dreams,” says John Barrowman. “My new show is a celebration of that wonderful journey”

MUSICAL theatre star John Barrowman will bring his new show I Am What I Am – West End To Broadway to York Barbican on May 20 2022.

Tickets go on sale on Friday, December 3 at 10am at yorkbarbican.co.uk for Barrowman’s return to the Barbican for the first time since May 2015.

“From the West End to Broadway, this has been the amazing journey of my musical theatre career,” says Barrowman. “I’ve worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Sondheim, Cameron Mackintosh, to name a few.

“I’ve performed at the National Theatre and on Broadway. I’ve lived my dreams. My new show is a celebration of that wonderful journey. I’ll perform songs from the biggest musicals I’ve starred in and perhaps one or two that I haven’t.

“Mix in a couple of duets. Sprinkle in a few surprises. This will be a show to remember. This has been a difficult time for many, so join me for a night of laughter and love and the best of musical theatre.”

John Barrowman is “the ultimate crossover artist”: he can sing, dance, act, present and on occasion he judges too.

The poster for John Barrowman’s I Am What I Am 2022 Tour

His journey to success on both sides of the Atlantic began in 1989 in musical theatre, making his West End debut as Billy Cocker opposite Elaine Paige in Cole Porter’s musical Anything Goes.

Leading West End roles ensued in Matador, Miss Saigon, The Phantom Of  The Opera and Sunset Boulevard, one he reprised in New York.

His other musical theatre credits include Putting It Together on Broadway and The Fix at London’s Donmar Warehouse, bringing him an Olivier nomination for Best Actor in a Musical.

The National Theatre revival of Anything Goes transferred to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, but better still his performance – one of his favourites – as Albin in La Cage Aux Folles won him the What’s On Stage Best Takeover Role Award.

From that show, I Am What I Am has become his signature tune, always his choice to close his concert shows.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on A Little Night Music, Opera North/Leeds Playhouse

Old flames reunited at Opera North: Stephanie Corley as Desirée and Quirijn de Lang as Fredrik in A Little Night Music at Leeds Playhouse

A Little Night Music, Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, Leeds Playhouse, until July 17. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or at leedsplayhouse.org.uk

THE collaboration between Opera North and Leeds Playhouse has finally resumed 13 months after originally intended. It has been a long wait but has picked up very fruitfully.

A bitter-sweet musical by the grand old man of bitter-sweet, Stephen Sondheim, is the perfect vehicle, reflecting on the fall-out from amatory accidents in European operetta just as we all contemplate a newly changed cultural scenario.

James Brining’s new production, updated to mid-20th century and hand in glove with Madeleine Boyd’s flexible set, is everywhere imaginative and often heart-warming, reaping the very best from a widely talented cast.

On the Playhouse’s apron stage – no proscenium arch (except briefly an improvised one for a Baroque throwback in The Glamorous Life – there is virtually no scenery. All is movable furniture: two clothes-rails, a grandfather clock, a doll’s house, a toiletry dresser, a double bed, a half-submerged piano. The only fixed point comes in Act 2, where the centrepiece is a fountain surmounted by a cherub, which is probably Eros.

James Holmes’s theatre orchestra – using the original and incomparable Jonathan Tunick orchestration – is placed at the back, stage right and blacked out for Act 2. Lighting designer Chris Davey’s discreet spots gently guide us to the next focal point, so that we are duped into feeling the action is continuous, the scene-changes happening magically.

Although much of the music moves in triple time, reflecting the triangular relationships of the story, its character evolves with the scenes. Holmes is masterful at these changing colours and accents, while remaining in close touch with his singers.

The Scandinavian twilight of Act 2, with alto flute, cor anglais, celesta and harp, is positively fragrant. He can equally easily find a lament in a waltz, as in Henrik’s Later, or pomposity in a polonaise, in the Count’s In Praise Of Women. His orchestra is the unsung hero of the evening.

There are some pretty splendid singers too. Heading the list has to be Josephine Barstow’s Madame Arnfeldt, the grande dame of the tale who has seen it all before, as she sardonically reminds us from her wheelchair in Liaisons. She exudes effortless authority through her commanding mezzo and diction that is a paragon of clarity.

As her actress daughter Desirée, Stephanie Corley brings a lovely soprano to her vacillating emotions; in Send In The Clowns, against a backdrop of slow choreography, her pacing and rubato is wondrous.

Opposite her – and incidentally rekindling their double act from Kiss Me, Kate with Opera North – is Quirijn de Lang as her erstwhile lover Fredrik, the lawyer caught in a mid-life crisis, whose firm baritone fires You Must Meet My Wife. His fall into the fountain is straight out of P G Wodehouse. Together their ambivalent emotions are cleverly cloaked.

Christopher Nairne brings an incisive baritone to his poker-faced Count, while Helen Évora’s Countess has charm to burn, notably in Every Day A Little Death. A word too for the Petra of Amy J. Payne, who brings both pizzazz and pathos to The Miller’s Son, a marvellous piece. Corinne Cowling’s Anne, Fredrik’s virginal second wife, and Laurence Kilsby’s high-strung Henrik merge neatly into elopement, while Agatha Meehan makes an engaging young daughter to Desirée (her alternate is Lucy Sherman).

The Quintet, five chorus members from Opera North acting like a Greek chorus, seem to me to sum up the whole show: they blend superbly, proving that good teamwork will always win the day. Congratulations to all, especially James Brining for pulling it all together.                                                                                                        

Review by Martin Dreyer   

Sam Johnson makes big Broadway video to raise funds for Theatre @41’s roof re-build

Banding and bonding: The Sam Johnson Big Band and and a galaxy of York musical theatre stars recording Broadway Baby to raise funds for Theatre @41’s roof renovation

TWENTY-ONE singers, 22 musicians and even four cats have come together – remotely, you can never herd cats – to make a fundraising video for Theatre @41 Monkgate’s roof renovation.

Under the musical direction and arranging skills of pianist Sam Johnson, they have recorded a big-band version of Broadway Baby, marking the 90th birthday year of composer Stephen Sondheim.

The video combines the Sam Johnson Big Band with cast members from the York musical theatre scene and you can see them in full swing on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6RcpRBJPwA

Donations through JustGiving can be made at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/broadwaybabymonkgate

York band leader, tutor, composer, performer, producer and now video maker Sam says: “I put the video together, getting in touch with all the singers, after having put together four or five other videos with the Big Band. I thought it would be a good video to wrap them all up and to include such a large number of people together for the cause!

“I also noted that everyone in the video has benefited in some way from the Monkgate venue, whether it be through a performance or rehearsal.”

“It’s a good, brassy Broadway big-band number to mix the two ensembles together in the smoothest way possible,” says band leader Sam Johnson of Sondheim’s Broadway Baby

Explaining his choice of musical-theatre song, with its apposite Covid-era lyric of “Waiting for that one big chance to be in a show”, Sam says: “I went for Sondheim’s Broadway Baby song-wise as it’s from one of the shows I’ve enjoyed most working on at Monkgate when Pick Me Up Theatre staged Follies’ last year.

“It’s a good, brassy Broadway big-band number to mix the two ensembles together in the smoothest way possible!”

Welcoming the fundraising boost of Broadway Baby, Theatre @41 board secretary Jo Hird – whose “dressing up is better than my vocals” on the video – says: “With Theatre @41 closed, we’re trying to crack on with as much decorating and renovating as we can, so as not to disrupt shows when we’re allowed to reopen.

“One of the shows we had to postpone was Pick Me Up Theatre’s Sondheim 90: A Birthday Concert to celebrate the New York composer’s 90th birthday. How brilliant of Sam Johnson to put Broadway Baby together. It took a lot of coordinating. 

Sam Johnson in rehearsal with his big band in pre-Covid days

“We’re really grateful to Sam for bringing this fundraiser to life because we need every penny we can get to repair our roof and keep our Monkgate building open.”

The cast taking part in the recording were: Susannah Baines; Emily Chattle; Emma-Louise Dickinson; Anna Hale; Iain Harvey; Sam Hird; Jo Hird; Darren Lumby; Sandy Nicholson; Adam Price; Emily Ramsden; Tracey Rea; Andrew Roberts; Rosy Rowley; Lauren Sheriston; Maggie Smales; Joanne Theaker; Dave Todd; Juliet Waters; Natalie Walker and Jennie Wogan.

Joining pianist, musical director and arranger Sam Johnson in the band were Katie Wood and Katie Maloney on alto sax; Richard Oakman and Stephen Donoghue on tenor sax; Nick Jones on baritone sax and a multitude of trumpet players, Connor McLean, Sam Rees, Charles Tomlinson, James Lolley, Daniel Dickson and Leo James Conroy.

So too did trombonists Anna Marshall, Lauren Ingham and Fliss Simpson; violinists Claire Jowett and Emily Jones, viola player Jess Douglas; cellist Lucy McLuckie; guitarist Tom Holmes; upright bassist Georgia Johnson and Andy Hayes on the drum kit.

Look out too for cameo appearances by a quartet of cats, Strummer, Misty, Paris and Bob.