Geoff Ambler continues his observations of Follies rehearsals at the Royal Theatre, Northampton
Geoff, our Musical theatre man, is sitting in on rehearsals. He’s giving us a unique step-by-step account.Day 6 – Full Company – Read/Sing through
Today was the first time the entire script would be read though with all the songs sung by the cast under the direction of Jonathan Gill, Music Director.
Because of this there was a small select audience made up of the theatre’s management seated at one end of the rehearsal room and the cast seated in a large U shape, facing them. I stuck myself inconspicuously in a corner so I could watch the audience and as much of the cast as possible. There was an interval at the appropriate point and although there were no small tubs of ice cream to enjoy, the consensus seemed to be that it was pretty darn good musical theatre already.
Jan Hartley playing Sally has a tough, soulful role, with few laughs and lots of issues surfacing that she has suppressed since her youth. Most of the emotional high spots, that I have seen, centre on her and she has some extremely moving songs and scenes to deal with. It’s already a stirring experience watching and listening to Jan sing Sally’s songs, even at this early sing through stage and it’s hard to not have tear filled eyes. Fortunately my inconspicuous seating plan leaves me inconspicuously moved. Jan has an amazing voice and presence, she draws your attention just with the subtle nuances of the character she inhabits and she handles these emotional scenes beautiful. I can’t wait until I get to hear her sing again.
Another immensely pleasing surprise, in the sing through, was the older and young Heidi’s, Margaret Walker and Laura Pitt-Pulford, singing “One More Kiss.” This was the first time I have heard them sing. Their performance was spellbinding and far too short. I know I am in a room bursting with extremely talented and accomplished actors and actresses, singers and dancers but sometimes something like this pulls me out of my normal state of awe and wonder and shocks me, reminding me again that this cast, both the professionals and community cast have talents most would only dream of.
Day 7 – Beautiful Girls & Who’s That Woman
Tonight Nick stages the older girls entrance during Beautiful Girls. Each girl gets a count of eight at the top of the stairs (going down to four for the last few) to present themselves, now in character, before walking down the stairs. They get a moment to pose and it is really quite amusing now, as the older girls incorporate an eight beat snapshot of their interpretation of their character. Watch out for the brilliant scowl from Rita Gee as Hattie Walker.
Tonight we see a new move, now known as the Jan Hartley arms, used in a dance for the first time. A little bit of choreographic history? Probably not but Nick’s way of incorporating a move someone does into his routine creates a flexible collaborative relationship between dancer and choreographer and helps the atmosphere in the dance rehearsals.
Lots more tap this evening. I’m still loving it! Nick makes big changes tonight with new steps and a new ending. At one point Nicks new choreography separates the older and young girls so all the experienced dancers are on the left of the stage.
This has an unexpected side effect as the younger girls pick the moves up quickly, then either work on them solo or sit and chat while Nick and Pippa work on the rest, step by step. It’s not a conscious decision to not help; it’s just that the girls are not next to their partners, their older selves and Nick and Pippa are working away. Last week the old and young character pairs working along side each other were able to watch and assist each other, leaving Nick with a troop of assistants, tonight the new steps seem to take longer however Nick progresses them all through the new section.
It’s a hot in the room tonight, much hotter if you are dancing, deodorant is reapplied and dancers occasionally drift or tap into the chill outside to cool down. Every one seems more tired than the previous weeks sessions, something Laurie notes as well. The long days are taking their toll even after the short weekend rest.
Day 10 – Who’s That Woman
I arrived early today and the normally lively rehearsals room was unusually quiet.
It was half an hour before the last tap session of the week and tea time. Jan Hartley was about to have a nap on some uncomfortable chairs arranged on one side until I sat on one. I quickly sloped off quietly to give her chance to have a rest.
Rehearsal schedules are long and intensive, requiring uninterrupted, focussed concentration and demands a body learn new movements, dance steps and actions as it they are the fluid actions of the character and are performed naturally and without thought, every night, night after night, week after week with the same passion and dedication on the last night as there was on the first night and each night in between. The girls rehearsal schedule has finished with “the mirror number” all week and it is really taking its toll on energy levels as well as their feet. As the tap shoes are put on there are plasters being applied to blisters, feet strapped up and knee supports put in place. This is the unglamorous side of the profession but shows the hard work and dedication that is required to achieve the spectacular they all strive for.
The number is eight minutes long and is already a spectacle to watch, even with rough edges and forgotten steps, but Nick’s choreography is intricate and brilliant and it is repeated again and again until everyone knows the new steps and it looks right. Then Nick shows them the next few new steps. He works mainly with the older girls tonight. The number starts off with just them for a few minutes, with their younger selves joining in later. If Nick can complete the first few minutes of the number tonight he will have finished the entire routine (or so he tells us). He and Pippa move around the six, working on the new pieces while the rest of the younger cast amuse them selves or sleep off to one side.
Laurie declares that he is a tap convert and it’s only the lack of tap shoes that keeps him off the dance floor. He decides to put a tap number in all his forthcoming productions, so now might be the time to get some of his Twelfth Night tickets.
One thing I’ve quickly picked up – If you can hear giggling coming from somewhere in the rehearsal room, you’ll find Hayley at the centre of it. Probably with a big grin. Tonight it was either teasing a sleeping dancer during a long lull for them or standing at the back of the room, miming playing the keyboard, singing along with Who’s That Woman and still managing to leap back into line and join the number right on time.
Day 12 – Full Company – Putting it together
As the full cast work through their vocal exercises today I realise that the place I chose to sit unnoticed is now in the middle of the front of the stage and the cast are all facing in my direction. At least Jonathan Gill has their full attention with his occasional admonishment “Please try to remember”. Jonathan is present in all the rehearsals; listening in to everything; adding music where required, normally unprompted; never less that a very friendly fellow, except possibly when someone tries to hit a note that they can’t. Jonathan is also the only person I have ever met who is able to play the piano and text at the same time!
Today the plan is to run through from the start working on the pieces that they have already put together and set them. The rehearsal room has a growing number of costume designs on the far wall. Each character has a number of costumes to change into through the show and fittings are scheduled during the week. Some of the guys must have had their fittings for their white services suits this week. There is some talk among the young cast about one of them looking “like Richard Gere from that film”, “the one where he carries his girlfriend”, “er… League of Gentlemen” some one offers.
The staging is meticulously worked over by Laurie bringing elements of the earlier sessions into this one and moving the cast onto and off the stage shifting focus between arriving girls and couples, running section again and again and adjusting groups into a fluid dance around the stage, utilising all the available space. Switching focus between meetings of old friends, crossing couples around and off stage. It is an interactive process with the cast making suggestions and offering feedback, discussing motivations, Laurie incorporates some ideas and adapts or discards others.
Heidi Taunt the Deputy Stage Manager is always present, prompting when necessary, taking endless notes about everything, marking entrances on the music sheets, noting script changes, prop requirements, the timings of particular cues, the order the cast move around the stage during the party scenes. She conjures up coffee when it runs out; the cast seem to run on coffee and chocolate biscuits (and occasionally nicotine for some). Everyone comes to Heidi with questions and requests, decisions are checked against her notes and her presence is essential. She even manages to unintentionally demonstrate how well she does her job, single handed, single armed in fact, by strapping her left arm into a sling; something to do with a recent shoulder injury, it doesn’t slow her down.
Prop cigarette cases are called for, for the young and old Weismann’s, and a matching pair appear after the first break. More props appear every time I look at the props table; today there are top hats and canes. Buddy has a trilby and a case now when he arrives looking for Sally. When he places the case down on the stage the resulting sound is used as the cue for the “Hey up there” freeze, as Buddy’s memories are stirred while looking around the theatre. Alex Giannini playing Buddy makes me laugh every time he tells his very bad joke. I’m now a little embarrassed about it, laughing every time, but it’s his delivery that gets me rather that the punch line, which even in my highly amusable state I know it’s not funny after seventy five retellings. Laurie works through Buddy’s entrance about ten times and Alex does it slightly differently every time, I laugh every time, I’m sure they think I’m simple.
Today they run through the first seven pages of the script it doesn’t feel like much but a lot of progress was made with setting the staging of the first scenes and the first numbers.