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Review Rock of Ages, Venue Cymru by Richard Evans

Venue Cymru, May 2 – 6 2023

A DLAP Group and In Fine Company Production

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Rock of Ages, fit for the stone age or a timeless classic? 

The 1980’s is an ideal setting for a jukebox musical.  For many it is the heyday of glam metal bands, Styx, Journey and Bon Jovi among others and you can take your pick from any number of power ballads.  Would this musical be an excuse for an extended playlist of Metal’s favourite songs or would it have some substance to the story?  

It is the storyline that could be a problem. Many in this genre of theatre are fairly artificial and predictable and at first glance Rock of Ages falls into this trap.  There are two starlets seeking to make it on Los Angeles’ famous strip who meet and fall in love.  In their ups and downs they confront the reality of a rockstar lifestyle and the fate of many young hopefuls who tried to succeed only to see their hopes dashed.  

There is however, more to this musical than that.  The first act felt stereotypical, but the second blossomed into an unexpected parody.  It delighted in poking fun at the characters and breaking expectations.  My favourite was where the business tycoon revealed a secret dream of designing formal wear for pets.  At times it developed into farce, the aging rocker retiring and opening a llama farm in Mexico where he would teach the llamas to swallow and not spit.  

 One welcome aspect of the performance was the willingness to break down the fourth wall and relate directly to the audience.  Most prominent in this was Kevin Kennedy as Dennis Dupree, a rocker turned sound engineer who narrated the play and sought to turn at least one member of the audience into a groupie.  This added to the most welcome comic touch in the second act.

This farewell (at least for the moment) tour is a consummate production as you would expect having come from the West End.  The set is dazzling, the choreography energetic and complimented the action really well rather than being an annoying interlude.  Pride of place goes to the three piece band who, as well as being fittingly loud, were excellent with plenty of screaming guitar solos and thunderous drum rhythms.  To criticise, at times the loudness of the music and the quick pace of the production drowned out the dialogue and lyrics in the songs.  This made the production, especially in the first act hard to follow.  

Would this musical warrant a comeback tour?  Some of the songs were great to hear again and it is good to see a production laugh at its own topic matter.   It would also suit the rock scene, where it is not unknown for bands to break up and reform several times, so such a prospect should be welcomed.  Going by the strength of the standing ovation at the end, this audience would enjoy a return to the stage in the near future. 

Review, The King and I – Venue Cymru by Richard Evans

Venue Cymru, March 7th to 11th 2023

Rodgers & Hammerstein, based on Margaret Landon’s book Anna and the King

Howard Panter for Trafalgar Theater Productions

 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

“How will I know when I know everything?” “When you are King!”

This faithful production of The King and I portrays the unexpected love story between the King of Siam and a schoolteacher really well. It also draws out a series of dilemmas thrown up by a remarkable passage in history, not least the problem of how one inherits omniscience!

At its heart it is the story of two people, the King and Anna, but like much of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work, the apparently light musical romance is rooted in political change.

For generations, each king of Siam had ultimate power within his protectorate, but the current king is now struggling to reconcile ancient rights with modern progress and the pernicious influence of western colonialism. The king is seen as barbaric, even though the show is set at the same time as the American Civil War, and only shortly after the Indian Mutiny. 

In fact this king is an educated, intelligent man trying hard to balance his autocratic power with a more considerate, conscience-driven approach.  

Opposite him is Anna, an intrepid, forthright widow employed as a teacher to the king’s children – all 67 of them. She arrives in Bangkok accompanied only by her young son, having never lived outside the British Empire. The culture shock in itself would be extreme. 

While others say what they think the king wants to hear, Anna  speaks her mind, becoming a “difficult woman” in the process. Her arrival throws up a number of clashes of culture, attitude and morality, some of which become humorous. Why did Western, Victorian women wear dresses with hoops ten feet wide?  I have no idea.  It is slightly ironic that I viewed this production on International Women’s Day, which seeks to raise the status of women worldwide today. Anna repeatedly asserts her right to be treated with dignity and equality, yet the king sees the role of a woman as merely to serve a man.  

There is therefore much to take from this story. Helen George and Darren Lee are excellent as the leads and are ably-supported by the cast, in particular the children. The score has a number of well-loved tunes, and Marienella Phillips showed her operatic voice to good effect as Tuptim, the chief narrator, a slave girl with an education and attitude.  The choice of Uncle Tom’ Cabin as a showpiece play for western visitors is a definite dig by R & H at US society.  

But there is a problem with this show in the present age: what was vital, bold and brilliant in 1951 lacks the intensity and grittiness that has become today’s standard. It has become a period piece. Some of the songs are very much of their time, and rather twee. 

But this criticism nonetheless admits the show’s classic status; it’s a rattling good story. The score may seem dated to some, but others will recognise their enduring appeal. The audience, of course, lapped it up from curtain-up and offered a sincere ovation at the end. For all its age and increasing creakiness, no one can deny its star quality.    

Review Sister Act, Venue Cymru by Richard Evans

Venue Cymru, February 13th to 18th 2023

Directed by Bill Buckhurst, book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, additional book material, Douglas Carter Beane

Produced by Jamie Wilson productions, Kevin McCollum, Gavin Kalin, Robbie Wilson and Curve

Music by Alan Mencken, Lyrics, Glenn Slater 

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

“This is a house of worship” “But this could be bigger than Broadway!  Bigger than Vegas!”

The premise behind Sister Act is great: a nightclub singer and gangsters moll on the run after witnessing a murder finds sanctuary in a convent and turns good while transforming their choir from a discordant mess to angelic sweetness. There is plenty of room for farce and slapstick in here and a thrilling ending to go with it.  

There are some excellent parts to this production, especially the singing, as you may expect from Sandra Marvin as Deloris, Lizzie Bea as Sister Mary Robert and more surprisingly from Clive Rowe  as Steady Eddy who stole the show a couple of times.  There is a nice line in humour and some great costuming and choreography.  The set is imaginative and the change from nightclub to convent to police station and back again is slick.  Leslie Joseph is both assertive as she dictates what she expects of the order yet vulnerable as she sees firstly her church community and then the sacred traditions threatened by modernity and the whirlwind that is Deloris. 

As this play is based on the 1992 film of the same name, there are some tough acts to follow. Does this play manage to recapture the appeal of the film?  I have heard some people bemoan the fact that the music is totally different, but this underestimates the quality of the songfest here.  

However, from memory, one thing the film did well was get a good balance between respect and parody.  Like all institutions, the church should be open to being satirised but they are entitled to be represented fairly as well.  I am not sure the play does this as successfully as the film. I was not convinced with a lyric from the mother superior that questioned whether God existed.  In addition, the lyric where the young novice expressed the desire to choose rather than to obey misses the point which is that the monastic life is one where you chose to obey.  In both these examples the musical seems to underestimate the power and depth of personal devotion.  

The limited scope of the stage compared to the film set also precluded the emphasis on service to the community which was a major feature in the original and is something that any faith community should seek to do.  However, there was a willingness to debate the relative merits of a materialistic and spiritual lifestyle and plenty of respect was paid to those who have taken the vows of a nun.  Whenever a play has some gentle moralising, it is important to get these social issues comments correct.  

However, such criticism is perhaps unfair on a production that is primarily a musical show with a happy ending.  In this light, the play is highly successful.  All in all, this was a good nights entertainment and was warmly appreciated by the sell out crowd. 

Review of Waitress, Venue Cymru, by Richard Evans

Book by Jessie Nelson, based on the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly

Directed by Diane Paulus

Produced by Barry and Fran Weissler, David Ian for Crossroads Live UK

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Waitress – was this afternoon tea with champagne at the Ritz or a slow morning at Sloppy Joe’s café?

Diane Paulus’ feel-good optimistic musical kept me engaged for the whole evening being consummately acted with excellent choreography and set design.  The leads, Jenna (Chelsea Halfpenny), Becky (Wendy Mae Brown) and Dawn (Evelyn Hoskins) had great chemistry and while they all sang well, Wendy Mae Brown’s was the stand out, powerful voice.  The score added plenty of phase and change to proceedings and the seamless transition from one set to another with well-timed choreography was dizzyingly effective.

When the play was first produced on Broadway in 2016, it had, most unusually, an all-female creative team and the nature of the story has an agenda to suit.  It tells the story of Jenna, a waitress who is a talented pie maker.  She is trapped in small-town America in an abusive relationship with little prospect for betterment.  She becomes pregnant and is seemingly destined to experience the perpetuation of the line of chauvinistic, misogynistic relationships that have oppressed women down through the ages.  Like mother, like daughter.  Then she meets her gynaecologist (David Hunter) and is able to sample what life could have been but she is caught in a tryst that can only bring danger to her and the baby in the future. 

Her saving grace is the supportive network in her place of work, in particular her best friends, Becky and Dawn and the owner of the diner, Joe.  In viewing the friendship of the three women we are invited to view that sometimes hidden expression of femininity including their sexuality, compassion and ambition.  They may live in an oppressive society, but they can experience fullness of life despite their circumstance.  

The male figures do not come out of this play covered in glory.  Some are thoughtful and considerate but they are more often self-indulgent and unappreciative of their partner.  Is it wrong to feel sorry for Earl, the husband of Jenna?  No, not really.  Any abusive, coercive person deserves our condemnation, but he too is a victim of this oppressive society, losing a dead-end job with no hope of change and yet possessive in his love for his wife who then walks out on him on the birth of their first child.  From her perspective he deserves this but he also needs a much better way in life.  If society is to change for the better, it should educate and improve all people.      

Does this setting have much relevance to Britain today?  I believe it does.  We have had nearly 50 years of equal opportunities legislation and it is clear that there is more opportunity for women than there has been in the past.  However, it is also evident that gender bias is still deep rooted and profound and there is much work to be done to give equality of opportunity. 

While this is a fun night out with plenty to satisfy those that love this story, this is a layered play giving much food for thought.  There was evidence in the audience of the cult following this story attracts which is highly understandable as there is much to identify with in both the play and the characters within. Maybe this is not champagne tea at the Ritz and it is definitely not a slow morning at Sloppy Joe’s.  It is more like a good night out at your local.  

Review Sister Act – Venue Cymru by Karis Clarke

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
Click on the link below to listen to an audio review of this production by Karis Clarke.
This was my first outing to Venue Cymru and I wasn’t disappointed. Set on the stunning North Wales coastline the venue was alive with activity.  The atmosphere was light and expectation high as several audience members dashed around in habits!
Sister Act is the musical comedy based on the movie starring Whoopi Goldberg, and, unless you were living in a convent yourself back in 1992,  it is highly unlikely you don’t have some knowledge of the film. (It’s popularity has ensured a regular repeats on TV at least once a year since circa 1995).
The stage version, unlike the film is set in the diva disco era of the 70’s and features original music from  ALAN MENKEN,  and the general feel of the show has  Mowtown vibe that is more than fitting to the outstanding vocal talents of  the lead.
Alexandra Burke in a scene from Sister Act
But it’s not all about the star in this show.  Deloris Van Cartier is a fantastic character full of witty one liners, side ways glances and comical physicality that Alexander Burke pulls off admirably. However the ensemble made the show for me. The combined talents of the supporting cast were superior. Acting, singing dancing and playing a variety of musical instruments on set allowed for a fluidity which you can sometimes loose with  larger productions. However this cast owned the stage, literally, they knew every inch.  Their management of the stage movement is a credit to Revel Horwood’s direction.  The scene changes were flawless and were choreographed to perfection.
Credit should also be given to the set design, the main stay an impressive church interior yet with the cleaver use of lighting and props  it easily faded into the background and made the transition between church,  nightclub, street, police station and back to church with very little effort.
The musicality was, as one of the songs repeats, ‘Fab -U- Lous  Baby,’ unfortunately this was also a slight disappointment for me as none of the songs from the movie were featured. So although the end of the play saw the majority of the full house clapping and on their feet I am sure if “I will follow him” had been played the roof would have lifted. However the original score was witty, befitting and more than enjoyable.  It’s easy to see how Alan Menken has Oscars under his belt.
Stand out moments of the show were any time the “gangsters” featured. (They stole the show a little bit from the nuns).  …..Joe Vetch (playing Eddie the sweaty police officer who saves the day) singing “I could be that guy ……Sister Mary Robert played by Alice Stokoe, who had a stunning voice singing a very Disney esq type song called “The Life I Never Had”…….. and the scene when the Sisters stand together for Deloris.
All in all there was nothing not to like, the show delivered everything thing it promised. One particular moment I found touching was on the final bow Alexandra Burke broke the fourth wall and you saw her thank the audience.  She genuinely seemed to appreciate the standing ovation they received and this shone through as she skipped off stage laughing with co cast not as Deloris but as herself and within those few seconds, in my eyes I saw  true star quality.
So unless you have lead in your feet and no soul in your heart I defy you not to enjoy this 4 stars production. Unfortunately for North Wales the runs ends on May 27th but you can still catch performances around the UK up until the 3rd September check www.sisteractuktour.co.uk for more details.
Starring ALEXANDRA BURKE and Directed and choreographed by Strictly CRAIG REVEL HORWOOD, Set and Costume MATTHEW WRIGHT (based on TheTouchtone Motion Picture “Sister Act”)