Music by Jeanine Tessori & Lyrics by Brian Crawley.
2** for the show 4 *** for the cast
The Charing Cross Theatre, The Arches, Villiers Street, LondonWC2N 6NL to 6 April 2019.
Mon- Sat 7.30pm Mat Wd 2.30pm Sat 3pm.
Runs 1 hr 40 mins. No interval.
TICKETS: 08444 930650
Review: William Russell 21 January.
A rather over long bus trip with songs
If ever a director was skilled at making a silk purse out of a musical cow’s ear, and this Jeanine Tessori musical is a cow’s ear of a show, it is Thom Southerland who is billed as production supervisor. Actually directed by the Japanese director Shuntaro Fujita making an impressive London debut the show does have the Southerland touch and this cultural exchange – musicals are popular in Japan where Southerland has also worked – could prove interesting, even rewarding, in time.
As for the theatre itself, formerly a kind of shoebox with a long thin auditorium which meant most of the audience was a very long way from the stage and had tunnel vision, it is been turned into a theatre in the square at it were, not round as the audience is on all four sides. There is a bank of seats where the stage was and a bank of seats which were the back half of the old house. In between is a square acting area with a revolve, while people still sit in the two galleries on either side.
It works a treat although productions in such settings, round, traverse or what you will, and thisone is no exception, always involve an awful lot of chair and box shifting in lieu of scenery. In this case the boxes are cabin trunks used as seats or piled up to create platforms and the bus as we make a long trip across America with the heroine. If the theatre is a four star affair, Southerland touch or not, the show is anything but, although it does come garlanded with assorted American awards, although these should always be taken with a pinch of salt as they depend on who gave them and what else was around at the time.
Tessori wrote the score for the marvellous Caroline or Change currently at the Playhouse so the arrival of this earlier show did raise expectations that it might be rather special are sadly dashed. The score is fine, but the lyrics and book, as so often with musicals, let things down. The plot is simple – It all begins in Spruce Pine in rustic North Carolina. Violet as a child was badly scarred in an accident involving her father and an axe. The repair job to the side of her face was botched by a drunken hick doctor – rural doctors in American tales are invariably either folksy saints or drunks and sometimes both. She was persuaded as a child by a travelling evangelist that it was repaired, although it was not, and now grown up in 1964 she has taken the bus to Tulsa in Oklahoma to find the evangelist for another laying on of hands.
On the way she meets two soldiers, one of whom is seriously attracted to her, the other interested in her as a quick lay – Violet is not disinterested in return so they couple on some cabin trunks pretending to be a bed in the cheap hotel the soldiers have suggested she stay in with them. In the end Violet seems to have learnt that the damage to her face is more in her mind than in reality, that it is the real her that matters, although by then I really couldn’t have cared less it all being so drearily predictable. She is also shadowed by a child actor playing her younger self which is never a good idea.
But on the plus side, and there is one, Kalsa Hammerlund sings powerfully as Violet, creating a touching, damaged and determined young woman with great skill. There are also strong performances from Jay Marsh as Flick, the nicer of the soldiers, Matthew Harvey as Monty, the prettier and more lecherous one, and Keiron Crook as her rustic good for not very much father. Best of all is Kenneth Avery Clark as the almost charlatan preacher baffled by this nuisance of a girl. He should have stopped the show with his big number but it just did not happen. On press night Amy Mepham made her professional debut as the young Violet and may, who knows, even grow up to be the next Bonnie Langford. The rest of the cast – Angelica Allen, Janet Mooney and Simbi Akande – sing splendidly as characters encountered by Violet along the way ranging from old ladies, entertainers and whores.
The pity is that to launch the strikingly reconfigured theatre this is the offering chosen. It may pull in the audiences; no critic ever knows whether that will happen or not – Les Miserables is the shining example of people getting it wrong. But first night audiences are interesting. They are invariably packed with friends of the cast, the director and producer, investors, and people who go anything regardless, which is particularly true of musicals. One has also to include reviewers biting their pencils. The reception is usually over the top and not to be trusted. This one applauded politely, there was minimal whooping, and no standing ovation, the latter being virtually obligatory these days. In other words they got it right. it was no just miserable old me who left less than thrilled.
Violet: Kalsa Hammerlund.
Young Violet: Any Mephan; Rebecca Nardin; Madeleine Sellman.
Leroy: James Gant.
Preacher: Kenneth Avery-Clark.
Music Hall Singer: Angelica Allen.
Billy Dean: Danny Michaels.
Old Lady/Hotel Hooker: Janet Mooney.
Lula: Simbi Akande.
Flick: Jay Marsh.
Monty: Matthew Harvey.
Father: Keiron Crook.
Director: Shuntaro Fujita.
Production Supervisor: Thom Southerland.
Choreograoher: Cressida Carre.
Musical Director: Dan Jackson.
Set Designer: Morgan Large.
Costume Designer: Jonathan Lipman.
Sound Designer: Andrew Johnson.
Lighting Designer: Howard Hudson.
Production Photographs: Scott Rylander.