CRAZY FOR YOU (Music by George Gershwin, book by Ken Ludwig)
King Alfred's Academy Theatre, Portway, Wantage, OX12 9BY
25-27 October 2018
Crazy for You is a re-write of a 1930 Gershwin musical called Girl Crazy.
The story starts in New York at Zangler's Follies, a music hall run by Hungarian-born impresario Bela Zangler (Mark Smedley). Bobby Child (Michael Dukes) is the son of a wealthy banking family. Since leaving Harvard, according to his mother (Elizabeth Dobson), he has achieved nothing. But Bobby has dreams of joining Zangler's Follies and becoming a song and dance star. Rejected after auditioning for Bela Zangler, he is sent by his mother to deliver a foreclosure notice on behalf of the family bank to a theatre in the Nevada desert. Once there Bobby falls in love with Polly Baker (Lauren Anderson-Smedley), the feisty tomboy daughter of the theatre's owner Everett (Edmund Bennett). Polly rejects Bobby's romantic overtures when she realises why he has come to Deadrock, Nevada. Hoping to win Polly's heart, Bobby tries to save the theatre from closure by putting on a show to pay off the mortgage. He summons the chorus girls from Zangler's Follies and turns up disguised as Bela Zangler. Hilarity ensues as he recruits the local cow-hands into joining the chorus. All is going like a dream, but then disaster strikes: Polly falls in love, not with Bobby, but with Bobby disguised as Bela. What to do? The plot twists and turns with Bobby's fiancee Irene (Helen Harrison) arriving from New York, and the real Bela Zangler turning up in Deadrock to sow confusion all round. All ends well, of course, with the lovestruck couple reconciled.
True enough, it's a plot of stuff and nonsense, but an excellent excuse for some famous Gershwin standards (I Got Rhythm, Someone to Watch Over Me, Embraceable You, Nice Work If You Can Get It) and high-energy dance routines. Lauren Anderson-Smedley proved herself a right old clever-clogs by taking the female lead and choreographing the whole show as well. She served us up with a series of imaginative, funny, high-octane ensemble pieces that had the last-night audience cheering and whooping. Musical director Chris Fletcher-Campbell led the boys and girls of the orchestra with punchy, brassy renditions of those Gershwin tunes, with more than a whiff of a Weimar Berlin cabaret band added for good measure. Given the characters and plot set-up, the comedy was not meant to be subtle, but director Lesley Phillips' experienced hand ensured that the comic punches were delivered smack on the nose. Lesley Phillips' and Rob Thorpe's minimalist set design made good use of the wide studio space of the King Alfred's Academy Theatre and its long gallery above the stage.
This was a production that offered some terrific song and dance set-pieces, interlaced with a comedy romance. What's not to like? AmEgos Theatre have gathered together a company of talented and committed amateur performers who presented an evening of semi-professional standard theatre to the good people of Wantage. Crazy for You just about sums it up!
TOP HAT (Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by Matthew White and Howard Jacques)
Abingdon Operatic Society
Amey Theatre, Abingdon School, Abingdon, OX14 1DE
23-27 October 2018
There are no two ways about it, Abingdon Operatic Society's latest production Top Hat is excellent and provided us all with a cracking evening's entertainment.
Based closely on the 1935 movie starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Top Hat the stage musical boasts a wealth of fine musical numbers written by Irving Berlin, including Puttin' on the Ritz, I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket, Cheek to Cheek, Let's Face the Music and Dance and of course Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.
The plot is a light romance based on mistaken identity where a series of misunderstandings make it seem as though the boy and the girl will never get together. They do of course, eventually. We always knew they would, but it's the journey that's the enjoyable part. Along the way we are treated to some terrific song and dance numbers interspersed with comedy.
It was the dancing, not just of the principals, but of the company, that impressed and delighted me most about this production. Full marks go to choreographer Judy Tompsett for giving us tap dancing of such a high standard. In a memorable evening, stand-out routines included Top Hat, White Tie and Tails and The Piccolino. The latter a complex multi-part set, staged in a hotel courtyard in Venice.
Musical director David Hebden also deserves praise for drawing out some wonderful performances from the cast and the orchestra.
Director Andrew Walter had a strong cast of principals at his disposal. Tom Draper-Rodi as a cheeky and impudent Jerry Travers brought a sparky brilliance to his dancing which matched his wonderful singing voice. From Kerry Callaghan as Dale Tremont we had the Hollywood romantic heroine, frustrated and outraged by Travers' apparently appalling behaviour. The glamour was spot-on, as was Kerry's singing and dancing. My favourite was Rob Bertwistle's Horace Hardwick. This is a gift of a comedy role that sees Horace sparring, first with his friend Jerry Travers, and later with his wife Madge (a feisty, funny performance to relish from Ann Turton). Rob's characterisation and comic timing were expertly delivered and he clearly had a lot of fun with the part. Iain Launchbury drew laughter from the audience for his set-piece musical number Latins Know How, as Italian costume designer Alberto Beddini. Top marks for creative use of Italian tricolour boxer shorts. But Iain's portrayal of this larger-than-life comedic character was strong throughout. In the programme notes, Kevin Pope, playing Jerry's butler Bates, hints at a slight reticence in taking on a non-singing role for the first time. He need have nothing to regret. This was one of those smaller parts that just grow with time until the audience is drooling with anticipation each time he appears. Kevin's dry, sardonic delivery was just what was needed. The audience's applause at the curtain call spoke volumes.
Stuart Beesley deserves praise for his lighting design which enhanced the glamour of the production and Andrew Walter's set design. Well done also to Joy Skeels for co-ordinating some terrific costumes – it must have been fun.
This was a production which provided a brilliant evening's entertainment, full of musical lollipops and some of the best dancing that I've seen so far in an amateur production. The audience billed and cooed their way out of the Amey Theatre afterwards.
House of Improv
Michael Pilch Studio Theatre, Jowett Walk, Oxford OX1 3TS
17-20 October 2018
Mention impro to most audiences and they will think of short-form pieces lasting a few minutes, centred around a single idea - in other words, improvised sketches. House of Improv boldly goes into the less widely explored realms of long-form impro – in this case a 70-minute show with no interval, based entirely on suggestions made by that evening's audience. The words 'pants', 'seat', and 'flying' spring to mind. That approach can be both terrifying and liberating for the performers, and entertaining for the audience. But it can also have some potential drawbacks, of which more below. Some of last night's audience had watched long-form impro before. For me, it was a new experience, and I'm happier for having seen it.
House of Improv are seven performers led, if that's the right word, by director-producers William Jefferson and Sofia Castello y Tickell. The first ten minutes of Family Secrets had Will and Sofia making introductions and warming up both cast and audience with plenty of shouty interaction. The audience was asked to call out suggestions for the story, centred around the basic premise of a family saga of some sort. Then we all had to cheer loudly for our favourite.
The result was a story about the Woofingtons, a family of dog trainers, who were facing a crisis with the impending trial of a family member. The story then unfolded in a series of two- and three-handed scenes, to musical accompaniment by Christopher Magazzeni.
We met Josh Woofington (William Jefferson), who was accused of stealing a dog. Although Josh protested his innocence, it soon became apparent that he had previous form and was a regular guest of Her Majesty's. A nice running gag was the discovery, by other family members, of dogs stolen by Josh hidden in cupboards, kitchen units and bins all over the house. William reminded me facially of a young George Cole, and Josh had a geezer-ish quality to him that grew more dodgy and shameless as the show went on.
Lord Woofington (Emma Hinnells), Josh's grandfather, was a famous lawyer, specialising in canine legal cases and jealous of his professional status. It was his job to defend Josh in what appeared to be an increasingly hopeless case. A lovely bit of impro turned into a running gag was Lord Woofington's habit of 'reading some law' in Latin to whoever happened to be in the room at the time. This was given a further twist later when it was revealed that Lord Woofington's wife Bernadette (Eliza McHugh) got an erotic kick out of it. Indeed it revived their flagging marriage. I was impressed by Emma's good comedy sense and strong stage presence. She projected a winsome knowingness that put me in mind of a young Sheila Steafel or Helen Lederer (that's praise indeed, by the way).
Professional rival to Lord Woofington was Joan (Sofia Castello y Tickell) the other lawyer in the family. Joan was one of the principal characters driving the story along - a pacemaker to keep the energy up. An inspired bit of impro came when the two lawyers competed for status by standing on chairs during a business meeting, each trying to be the tallest. Later in the show, Joan developed a crush on Sarah (Hannah Williams), much to the delight of Lord Woofington.
Kilian Lohmann played Matthew, one of the grown-up children of the Woofington family, bringing to the show a nice sense of comic timing and quietly understated humour.
Bernadette (Eliza McHugh) was skittish and kooky (her word), turning into an elderly eccentric in the second half of the show, dressed in a sparkly emerald green raincoat. Eliza's double act with her stage husband (Emma Hinnells as Lord Woofington) started to blossom towards the end of the show, and I would have liked to have seen more of this earlier on, as it was one of the characterisation highlights of the piece for me.
Daughter Sarah (Hannah Williams) was played as a stereotypical soap-opera heroine, overwhelmed by her emotions and worries about the family. If there was a sympathetic character amongst the oddballs of the Woofington family, then Sarah was it.
Josh's sister Beatrice (Amy Kennedy) was by turns guilt-ridden and empathetic, and Amy proved herself a quick-thinking performer.
Credit also to Vidy Reddy for some nifty lighting changes on the fly.
Family Secrets started and finished strongly, but experienced a dip halfway through. After about 40 minutes, the scenes started to get a little stale and bogged down, and the story needed to be moved forward. In the final 15 minutes, with the need to wrap up the show into some sort of conclusion, the plot took off again with a series of 'I'm Spartacus!' moments. First Bernadette then Beatrice offered to take the blame for the dog theft and go to prison in Josh's place. Finally, a piece of video tape evidence of Josh's misdemeanours came into the hands of Joan and Lord Woofington. A family meeting was called and Bernadette's dog urinated to order on the video tape, destroying all evidence of the crime.
House of Improv's aim was to perform a 70-minute piece – a tall order for a wholly improvised show. Impro combines the functions of actor and playwright in one person at the same time, and that presents a mighty challenge. The performer has to remain 'in the moment', yet plotting and characterisation require a stepping back from the action. This tension between process and content is often resolved in the relative neglect of the plot line. In this case, the show thankfully received a kick in the pants about 15 minutes from the end and the piece took flight again, ending on a high note. The audience on the night clearly enjoyed the show, as did I.
Impro is very hard to do, never mind do well. These performers, we were told, had been doing it for less than a year, and did extraordinarily well. Congratulations to all concerned.
Photo credits: Amrita Khandpur
About the Author
Mike Lord has been involved with amateur theatre for over twenty years, mainly as an actor but also, more recently, as a director.
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