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Review: The Toxic Avenger the Musical ★★★★ - This grungy green giant is on message loud and clear

Producer Katy Lipson (Aria Entertainment) has a sure eye – and ear – for a hit musical. Between a summer of new musical theatre at The Other Palace, including Some Lovers, Burt Bacharach’s first for years, and the imminent autumn transfer of a sell-out immersive version of tribal rock musical Hair arriving at London’s Vaults from Manchester’s Hope Mills Theatre, comes this West End transfer of a musical that had a hugely successful first outing at Southwark Playhouse.

It isn’t the first high-camp schlock horror movie to make it from screen to stage, though it may be the weirdest (and loudest). Like soulmate Little Shop of Horrors, it’s based on a movie with a musical score added here by David Bryan (yes, Bon Jovi’s keyboardist David Bryan Rashbaum!). In place of the film’s comic-book biffs and bangs – enough to employ an army of Foley artists and stunt-persons – Joe DiPietro’s adaptation of Lloyd Kaufman’s (with Joe Ritter) bracingly violent screenplay has Benji Sperring’s fast-moving, out and loud, in-yer-face direction; designer takis’ versatile three-tier set, incorporating huge vats, library, beauty salon and much more; a loud and lovely five-piece band led by musical Wunderkind Alex Beetschen – and just five extraordinary triple threats playing a cast of (almost) thousands.

In fictional New Jersey town Tromaville, the dastardly Mayor ruthlessly exploits local resources, dumps waste like there’s no tomorrow and is behind local crime syndicates. Meanwhile puny weakling Melvyn is bullied mercilessly until his tormentors crown their violence by throwing him into a vat of toxic waste, transforming him into the (admittedly hideous) superhero Toxic Avenger – green in colour and credentials – sworn to cleanse Tromaville of waste and bullies, including the Mayor; and soon, beloved of pretty, blind librarian Sarah, who ‘sees’ him not exactly for what he is, as she’s convinced ‘Toxie’ is an exotic French name.

Where the film split Melvin/Toxie between two actors, Mark Anderson curls up as Melvin and more than mans up for Toxie. Natalie Hope achieves a spectacular double as sexually predatory, vampish Mayor, her shocking pink décolletage an offensive weapon (the film has a man in suit!), with lightning changes into Melvin’s Mum in hairnet and housecoat – even actually duetting with herself! Ché Francis’ ‘Black Dude’ and Oscar Conlon-Morrey’s ‘White Dude’ morph miraculously into multiple pairs of thugs, henchmen, cops and hilariously, girlfriends. Emma Salvo just gets to be plucky Sarah, in mismatched pop socks, and constantly mislaying her white cane – she really goes for the gleefully politically incorrect, definitely ‘blind’ rather than ‘visually impaired’. All five and their hard-working swing/understudies, Sophia Lewis and Peter Bindloss, have huge, true voices to carry Bryan’s witty (and mostly audible) lyrics. An intoxicatingly tasty – and tasteless – treat.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Irina Chira

The Toxic Avenger the Musical runs until Sunday 3 December. 7.30pm (Tue-Sat; exc. 3 Oct), 3.30pm (Sat only), 3pm & 6.30pm (Sun only). £19.50-£59.50. Arts Theatre, WC2HL 7JB. www.toxicavengermusical.co.uk

Review: Grand Finale ★★★★★ – Apocalyptic vision in Shechter's triumphant total dance theatre

If that title sounds ominous, Shechter told me in interview: “I wanted to capture a sense of our time…that out-of-control feeling that things are coming to an end. And how can this have a happy ending?” * Plus, in a programme note on what he does – or does not – expect of his audience: “It’s about what is happening to them in their head, how they feel, [not about getting] it right in some way.”

These ideas coincide with news bulletins of refugees fleeing fresh violence and natural disaster to colour my response to what I’m seeing – figures in a stark, imagined landscape fleeing, falling, supporting each other’s bodies, dead or alive – often hardly noticing when they drop their burdens. Sometimes the flight is collective, sometimes one or two isolated figures move and pause in the shifting tableaux.

Shechter’s own original percussive soundtrack, with Yaron Engler, combines with Tom Visser’s harsh white lighting and the shadows it throws to add to the atmosphere of ominous apocalypse as screens like monoliths or tablets hide and reveal the dancers who also move them swiftly around the stage. These and the dancers’ fluid costumes are designed by Tom Scutt. It’s the first time Shechter has worked with a designer and it works triumphantly for this is total dance theatre.

The dancers also share the stage with a string sextet, the use of live music making another entirely successful first for Shechter. At first they are placed at one side, later they take centre-stage as the stark lighting gives way to something more golden, celebratory; but always they are part of the stage picture, even the choreography and design, as well as the sound.

That they are in formal evening attire is significant as they play ‘found’ music, notably Franz Lehar’s 'Merry Widow' waltz, 'Love Unspoken' (could that title be significant too?), as well as chamber music by Tchaikovsky and a Russian tune from Jewish composer Vladimir Zaldwich.

Although there’s room for lightness of touch and levity too, it’s perhaps that feel of early 20th-century Mittel Europa, between the wars, which brings to my mind the apocalyptic poetry of TS Eliot and WB Yeats. ‘Things fall part, the centre cannot hold’ writes Yeats in The Second Coming, though of course the dancers’ centres of gravity can hold – they are characteristically centred and grounded, unless they are ‘playing dead’.

Sometimes they recall the opening of Eliot's The Hollow Men: ‘We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw’. The poem closes with the famous lines ‘This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper’. Shechter’s triumphant apocalyptic vision ends rather with a bang – and a standing ovation.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Rahi Rezvani

Grand Finale runs until Saturday 16 September. 7.30pm. £12-£32. Sadler's Wells Theatre, EC1R 4TN. 020 7863 8000. www.sadlerswells.com

Then tours overseas: 1 – 4 November Danse Montréal; 9 – 11 November BAM, New York; 24 - 26 November Dansens, Hus, Oslo; 12 December Scène Nationale d’Albi

More dates to be announced

*see Jewish Renaissance Magazine July 2017 issue page 28

Thoughts on the centenary of artist Charlotte Salomon

Yesterday, Sunday 16 April, marked Charlotte Salomon’s centenary. I find myself imagining what the trajectory of her life – and art – might have been had she survived the Holocaust. Would she have rebuilt her life and perhaps settled in Amsterdam, where her parents had taken refuge during the war, and raised a family with her husband, fellow refugee Alexander Nagler? Would she have gone on to become a well-known artist and perhaps a grandmother and great-grandmother, founding a dynasty of artists? Perhaps she would now be celebrating her centenary. Her stepmother, the renowned mezzo soprano Paula Salomon-Lindberg, lived to celebrate hers, dying at the age of 102 in the year 2000.

Sadly this is idle speculation. The reality is that her achievement by the age of 26 stands as unique and extraordinary: the series of 765 autobiographical gouaches that make up her artwork Life? or Theatre?, which you can see for the first time in full from this October at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.

The proof of her enduring fascination and the inspiration she continues to provide can be seen from this June in the performances of Charlotte – A Tri-Coloured Play with Music, in Canada and beyond, as its creators tell me in the article from the April 2017 issue of Jewish Renaissance, which you can read now by clicking this link.

Details and links to the exhibition of Life? Or Theatre? and performances of Charlotte - A Tricoloured Play with Music are below and I know that this year, and every year, Charlotte Salomon will continue to gain new admirers.

By Judi Herman

An exhibition of Charlotte Salomon’s artwork Life? Or Theatre? will be shown for the first time in full at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, from 25 October to 25 March 2018. www.jck.nl.

Charlotte – A Tri-Coloured Play with Music will be featured in two Canadian Festivals this June. The Human Rights Arts Festival in Kingston, 1 June, and Luminato Festival, Toronto, 16-18 June. Then from 30 June to 2 July at World Stage Design Festival Experimental Theatre in Taipei, Taiwan.

Visit www.theaturtle.com for other upcoming performances.

Allons enfants de la Patrie! France during and after WWII provides fertile soil for rich drama, music and art this year

What links London’s latest hit musical An American in Paris, a revival of Incident in Vichy – an Arthur Miller drama not seen in this country for 50 years – and the centenary of the young German artist Charlotte Salomon, who continues to enchant more than 70 years after she perished in the Holocaust?

The clue is in the titles of the theatre pieces. Arthur Miller's Incident in Vichy concerns the fate of 10 men detained in Vichy, France, at the height of World War II in 1942, when Vichy became notoriously synonymous with the French government of Marshal Pétain that collaborated with the Nazis. An American in Paris, freshly adapted from the much-loved Gershwin movie musical, is reimagined with a story set in the City of Light in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the war. The heroine is a young Jewish ballerina safely hidden by Parisians, while her parents have disappeared in wartime Provence. And the young German artist Charlotte Salomon, escaping Nazi Germany to take refuge in the South of France, was herself arrested in Villefranche in September 1943 aged just 26 – within a month she had been murdered on arrival in Auschwitz.

Salomon was born 100 years ago this April and in the April edition of Jewish Renaissance, which will reach subscribers just before Passover, I explore the continuing allure of her life and work as expressed in the 765 autobiographical series of gouaches that make up her Life? Or Theatre?, in the company of the co-creators of a new play with music telling her story "in three dimensions".

I have just had the good fortune to marvel at the glorious evocation of the newly-liberated City of Light in American in Paris – a show that adds depth to the light-as-air story of the much-loved film musical without losing any of its charm and vitality, thanks to a fresh plot with Jewish protagonists at its heart. Find out more in my American in Paris review.

My most recent review is of an extraordinarily well-cast and tightly-directed revival of Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy. The production successfully ratchets up the tension of Miller’s 90-minute morality play examining the different responses and fates of those 10 men picked off the streets of Vichy by a Nazi regime intent on rounding up Jews for deportation. It continues at London's Finborough Theatre until Saturday 22 April.

By Judi Herman

Click here to read all of our theatre reviews.

Review: Incident at Vichy ★★★★ – Rarely-performed Arthur Miller is 90 minutes of mounting tension in wartime France

Set in the detention room of a Vichy police station in 1942, Miller’s drama explores the ways paranoia among those detained by the Nazis could descend so easily into guilt and fear, making it all too easy for the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Ten men wait to be called. At first, the strained and nervous discussion is about why they might be there (a random pick up, routine check on their papers), but it soon emerges that some (or most) are Jews who have fled German-occupied northern France for the southern, ‘unoccupied’ Free Zone.

The play examines the various characters (some not even given a name: Gipsy, Waiter, Boy, Old Jew) and how they react to the increasingly frightening circumstances in which they find themselves. Some hope against hope that it will all turn out alright, even after communist railway worker Bayard (powerful Brendan O’Rourke) warns of cattle trucks full of people going to Poland to rumoured death camps. Others urge direct action, by the able-bodied at least. Are there ‘bad’ Germans and ‘passive’ Jews? In this classic morality play laying out the choices of good and evil between man and man and particularly within man himself, there are serial confrontations that reveal just how many points there can be on the so-called moral compass.

Previous, rare, productions of this Arthur Miller play suffered from trying to crank in dramatic action to beef up the morality statement, risking pre-empting the play’s climax, which does offer the promise of redemptive action (the ‘incident’). Here, director Phil Willmott makes the wise decision to let the words speak for themselves by focusing on designer Georgia de Grey’s white banquette within a white box that works brilliantly (literally) in the Finborough’s limited space. His superb line up of detainees are arranged on or around it in shifting poses as eloquent as Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Above them looms their eerie shadows, sharply-defined by Robbie Butler’s lighting.

From Lawrence Boothman’s painter, eyes eloquent with terror, to PK Taylor’s wonderfully infuriating actor, apparently in denial about his predicament; from Edward Killingback’s conscience-ridden Austrian nobleman (authentically tall and blonde) to Gethin Alderman’s French (Jewish) army doctor presenting Miller’s moral dilemma; this is a faultless and generous ensemble, perfectly cast to flesh out Miller’s selection of ‘types’ and to invest his rhetoric with humanity and pathos. And among the German captors, Timothy Harker, chillingly embodying the Nazi professor who revels in flushing out Jews, and Henry Wyrley-Birch’s conflicted Major, his war wound rendering him terrifyingly unpredictable, contribute to 90 minutes of almost unbearable tension.

The questions Miller poses are relevant today and this is an exceptional opportunity to see a rarely performed play in a production that Miller would surely have adored.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

Incident at Vichy runs from Wednesday 7 – Sunday 25 June. 7pm (Tue-Sat only), 2.15pm (Sat & Sun only). £19.50-£25, £16 concs. King's Head Theatre, N1 1QN. 020 7226 8561. www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Click here to read more theatre reviews.

Two consecutive evenings, two talented young Israeli performing artists, both with so much to offer

knock-and-falling I rounded off October by spending two consecutive evenings being excited and challenged by the work of two talented young Israeli performing artists, both with so much to offer. Niv Petel is heartbreaking in Knock Knock, his beautifully nuanced account of a devastating situation faced by too many Israeli families, and Hagit Yakira attracted full houses for her exciting new work Free Falling.

Petel is an extraordinary physical actor, wonderfully convincing as a devoted mother whose son is the centre of her life. An engaging and important contribution to our understanding of life in Israel. And at Sadler’s Wells last week, dancer/choreographer Yakira presented four talented performers falling and recovering again as they take what life throws at them. Supporting each other, their eyes and faces as important as the rest of their bodies as they look out for each other. In a beguiling add on, three more dance artists responded to Free Falling – including full audience participation on the studio floor, everyone linked in a joyful dance – a sort of Hora at Sadler’s Wells, which makes Israeli dance so welcome. Niv Petel and Hagit Yakira are certainly names to watch.

Continue through the blog to read our reviews of Knock Knock and Free Falling, as well as an interview with Niv Petel, or click the names to go straight to each one.

by Judi Herman

A Report on Free Falling, the new show from Israeli dancer/choreographer Hagit Yakira at Sadler’s Wells

free-falling1 Hagit Yakira attracted full houses for her exciting new work, four talented performers falling, recovering and supporting each other, as they take what life throws at them. Their eyes and faces are as important as the rest of their bodies as they look out for each other. Yakira says she invites her audience “to experience the unravelling of real life experiences”. What I loved, though, was the synthesis – the building up of the elements that make up this seemingly simple but actually complex work performed on a vast bare stage.

One eloquent male dancer repeatedly falls and rights himself, while uttering the words "fall" and "recover". He’s joined by a second male dancer, full of solicitude for his partner, whom he repeatedly lifts and allows to slip away. A female dancer joins them and composer and multi-instrumentalist Sabio Janiak adds his serenely plangent music to the mix. A second female dancer makes a quartet and all four display the same solicitude for whichever of them is falling – clearly making recovery possible, not just by supporting them physically, but with the empathy in their expressions. I thought of the motto of the Three Musketeers (with D’Artagnan also four of course): “All for one and one for all”. The space is vast but they crisscross through it all. Janiak adds percussion too – and sometimes takes away his music leaving just the dancers in their loose, pastel clothes. It's moving, telling, soothing, startling and always engaging. The dancers are Sophie Arstall, Fernando Belsara, Stephen Moynihan and Verena Schneider.

free-falling2

In a beguiling addition, three dance artists respond to Free Falling – a different trio each night. The night I went there was a considered response from Dr Emma Dowling on video and an immediate response from Rosemary Lee, a choreographer and creator of extraordinary large-cast community pieces for dancers of all ages. It was fascinating to compare Dr Dowling’s conscientious onscreen response with Rosemary’s joyful movement through the space, retracing the footsteps of the dancers and throwing down pages from her notebook in response to what she had seen and experienced in each spot.

Between these two came the response from dancer Rachel Krische, drawing on the movement quality choreographed by Yakira for the quartet, but relating to members of the audience – using them as her dance partners, first touching, then asking for more – for support and the intertwining of limbs. And finally, gloriously climaxing in full audience participation on the studio floor – everyone linked in a joyful dance – a sort of Hora at Sadler’s Wells, which makes Israeli dance so welcome. Hagit Yakira is a name to watch – and JR will be watching out for more Israeli dance at Sadler’s Wells.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Loy Olsen and Kiraly Saint Claire

Free Falling was presented as part of Wild Card, a series of specially curated evenings at Sadler's Wells Theatre from a new generation of dance makers, bringing fresh perspectives to the stage. www.sadlerswells.com

To read more about Hagit Yakira and Free Falling, click here http://www.hagityakira.com

Help fund the UK's first ever Jewish farm

jr-sadeh-farm Next month Sadeh Farm in Kent is set to open its gates. This may not seem like news in itself, but Sadeh (field in Hebrew) is a unique kind of farm: a Jewish farm. Founded by Talia Chain and co, who have already begun work in the grounds of Skeet Hill House, Sadeh aims to reconnect people with their faiths and each other by working together on the land to grow vegetables. "Here Jewish people of all ages and backgrounds can connect with our rich tradition of Jewish farming and be inspired by a religion based in agriculture," they promise in their mission statement. While the group are almost set up, they still need financial help to acquire polytunnels, sheds, tools, marketing and legal help and more. Visit their Chuffed crowd-funding page for more info and to donate.

By Danielle Goldstein

www.sadehfarm.co.uk

Don't miss Arthur Miller season on BBC Radio 3, 4 and 4 Extra

miller  

This month BBC Radio has joined in the celebrations of Arthur Miller’s centenary (he was born 17 October 1915) with a terrific season of dramas and documentaries exploring his life and work on Radio 3, 4 and 4 Extra – including the broadcast world premiere of The Hook, which had its world premiere on the stage earlier this year, as reported in Jewish Renaissance. Read on for all the necessary details, and if you miss/have missed any of the programmes, they will be available on BBC iPlayer for a month after broadcast.

Coming up this Saturday 17 October on Radio 4…

2.30-4.15pm Unmade Movies: Arthur Miller's The Hook The world broadcast premiere of Arthur Miller's unproduced screenplay tells the story of a 1950s Brooklyn longshoreman who is fired for standing up to his corrupt union boss, but decides to fight back by standing for union president.

8-9pm Archive on 4: Attention Must Be Paid – Arthur Miller's Centenary   "Attention must be paid to such a person," says Linda of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman'. Miller himself spent his long life paying close attention to the society and times in lived in. He scrutinised the American Dream in 'Salesman', in 'The Crucible' revealed its hysteria and in 'All My Sons' its corruption. One hundred years, to the day, after the birth of Arthur Miller his biographer, Christopher Bigsby, mines the BBC's and his own archives, tracing the life and work of this towering American figure. There are contributions from Dustin Hoffman, Warren Mitchell and Brian Dennehy, who all played Willy Loman, and Ying Ruocheng, who played the role in Beijing. Henry Goodman speaks about working on his late play, 'Broken Glass'. We hear from Harold Pinter, Nicholas Hytner and John Malkovich. And there is previously unbroadcast material from Miller's brother and sister, and his wife, the photographer, Inge Morath.

Still available to catch up on…

The Essay: Staging Arthur Miller on Radio 3 To mark the centenary of Arthur Miller's birth (17th October 1915), in five 15-minute programmes on Radio 3, playwrights, directors and an actor, reflect on what his work means to them and describe their personal connection with the playwright and his work. They are first broadcast from Monday to Friday 12 to 16 October at 10.45pm

The Life and Times of Arthur Miller on Radio 4 Four 45-minute biographical dramas broadcast in Radio 4’s Afternoon Drama slot from 12 to 15 October

Fame on Radio 4 Extra three short stories by Miller under the title ‘Fame’ on Radio 4 Extra

Arthur Miller: The Accidental Musical Collector on Radio 4 Extra Playwright Arthur Miller taped Blues and spiritual songs of North Carolina's poor in 1941. With Christopher Bigsby. From February 2005.

Playing the Salesman on Radio 4 Extra Christopher Bigsby analyses the role of Willy Loman, the central character in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Contributors include Dustin Hoffman, Warren Mitchell, Brian Dennehy and Alun Armstrong, all of whom have played the role.

By Judi Herman