Thom Southerland

Review: Death Takes a Holiday ★★★ - Magic realism in 1920s Italy makes for a haunting musical

Lush romantic stories are bread and butter to composer/lyricist Maury Yeston, and he writes scores to match. His elegiac music conjures time and place and whether the place is the doomed Titanic ocean liner or Grand Hotel Berlin 1928, the first half of the 20th century seems to be his preferred time.

Yeston and Peter Stone, who wrote the book for Titanic, next turned to Italian playwright Alberto Casella’s 1924 romance, Death Takes a Holiday, with its glamorous setting – an aristocrat’s villa on Lake Garda. This fanciful story has Death falling for Grazia, a beautiful newly-engaged young aristocrat so that he allows her to escape unscathed from a catastrophic car crash; and taking the guise of a handsome young Russian Prince to gatecrash her father’s weekend house party, courts her himself. In a programme note Yeston points to what’s behind Casella’s story – a preoccupation with death in the survivors of the Great War and the ensuing deadly influenza pandemic which between them claimed 60 million lives. So there’s a thematic link with Yeston’s earlier work. It’s a sad irony that Stone’s death in 2003 meant that Thomas Meehan had to take over.

The strange dreamlike chamber musical gets its dream production, thanks to director Thom Southerland’s fine cast and creative team and MD Dean Austin’s 10-piece band. Set designer Morgan Large belies his name, creating on a pocket-sized stage terraces and colonnades of an Italian lakeside villa as convincing as any in an Ivory/Merchant film. And Jonathan Lipman’s stunning take on period costumes complements perfectly, for Southerland cleverly makes his 14-strong cast part of the set, for example standing on chairs to suggest the doomed car.

There are uniformly elegant performances too. Chris Peluso’s Death and Zoë Doano’s Grazia look perfect in each other’s arms and have soaring voices to match the music Yeston gives them. Peluso is both appealingly ardent and as sinister as his real identity demands and Doano is so alive and fresh that you fear for her as she falls for him, even as she recognizes him.  Mark Inscoe commands as the Count, her worried father, and among his guests, Samuel Thomas stands out as Major Eric Fenton, closest friend of his son, Roberto, killed in the Great War, with one of the show’s best numbers, Roberto’s Eyes. Scarlett Courtney as Eric’s sister and Helen Turner as Roberto’s widow Alice are touching representatives of girls without husbands post-war. Gay Soper and Anthony Cable are touching and funny as the vintage couple rediscovering youthful vigour while Death has taken time out. There are though perhaps too many musical numbers and it’s just a shame that Yeston’s pot pourri of styles doesn’t quite make for a killer musical.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

Death Takes a Holiday runs until Saturday 4 March, 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 2.30pm (Wed only), 3pm (Sat only), £17.50-£39.50, at Charing Cross Theatre, WC2N 6NL.

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Review: Ragtime ★★★★ – A timely revival for a musical about immigration, aspiration and discrimination

ragtime At this time of post-Brexit xenophobia and with refugees in crisis, Ragtime’s dramatic account of the hardships and hatred faced by early 20th-century immigrants to America is all too timely.

Terrence McNally’s book works seamlessly with Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics to bring EL Doctorow's 1975 novel to the stage. The story revolves around the interaction of three families: well-established WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) Mother, Father and their Little Boy, with Grandfather and Mother's Younger Brother; ragtime piano-playing African American Coalhouse Walker and Sarah, the mother of his baby son; and Tateh (Yiddish for daddy), a young Jewish widower newly-arrived from Latvia with his daughter, as well as his hopes. “A Shtetl iz Amereke,” sings Gary Tushaw’s starry-eyed, sympathetic Tateh.

When Father leaves for a polar expedition, compassionate, resourceful Mother proves she can think for herself, rescuing the new-born abandoned by troubled Sarah, taking her in too and effecting reconciliation between Sarah and Coalhouse. There is an immediate connection when she meets Tateh, in danger of having his aspirations crushed by grinding poverty. But the racial hatred faced by Coalhouse leads to violence that threatens to engulf them all.


Famous personalities of the era play a part, the Jews represented by escapologist Harry Houdini (played by winning Christopher Dickins, his accordion part of his personality) and fiery anarchist activist Emma Goldman (the splendid Valerie Cutko), inspiring and advising alongside civil rights pioneer Booker T Washington (impressive Nolan Frederick channelling Obama). The car Coalhouse buys from Henry Ford (Tom Giles) provokes the hatred and envy that drives the story. And as professional femme fatale Evelyn Nesbit, Joanna Hickman, funny and ravishing, perches on a piano, her cello-playing part of the allure that mesmerises Jonathan Stewart’s likeable, hot-headed Younger Brother.

Thom Southerland’s production fills the Charing Cross’s tiny stage with ‘teeming masses’ - his cast of 24 actors, mostly musicians, dynamically choreographed along with their instruments, by Ewan Jones on a versatile set (designers Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher). Their twin balconies swing across stage to double as ocean liners and twin pianos make vehicles, platforms, and magnificent music thanks to dynamite onstage MD Jordan Li Smith and the nimble fingers of Ako Mitchell’s Coalhouse.

The rhythms of Stephen Flaherty’s score, ranging from the syncopation of ragtime itself to the klezmer brought by Jewish immigrants, wrap the auditorium with powerful sound, thanks to Mark Aspinall’s orchestrations. When the cast sing in chorus it is breathtaking, sometimes overwhelming. There are glorious individual voices. Anita Louise Combe’s Mother has rich warm tones to match her generous personality. Jennifer Saayeng’s Sarah moves to tears with the quiet vehemence of Your Daddy’s Son and soars in a duet with Mitchell’s virile, passionate Coalhouse, and Seyi Omooba’s voice is heart-stopping in this often spellbinding evening.

by Judi Herman

Photos by Annabel Vere and Scott Rylander

Ragtime runs until Saturday 10 December, 7.30pm, 2.30pm & 3pm, £17.50-£29.50, at Charing Cross Theatre, The Arches, Villiers St, WC2N 6NL; 08444 930650.

Review: Allegro ★★★★ – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s story of a small-town hero lives up to the ‘quick tempo’ of its name

ALLEGRO 1 Gary Tushaw (Joseph Taylor Jr.) and company Photo Scott Rylander Allegro is a curious musical. Released between 1945’s Carousel and South Pacific (1949), it goes some way to form the missing link in the canon of work by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's ground-breaking partnership. Theatrical ideas and innovative storytelling make Allegro a teasing and engaging watch, though it was ahead of its time; employing a Greek chorus to pass comment and an unfussy set to ensure the fluidity of its scenes.

Now a dream team gives Allegro its European premiere. Director Thom Southerland (Grand Hotel, Titanic) works seamlessly with choreographer Lee Proud and musical director Dean Austin to create a sophisticated production on designer Anthony Lamble’s moveable feast of levels, from what might appear at first to be simplistic, folksy subject matter.

Allegro tells the story of Joseph Taylor Junior, an everyday ‘Joe Blow’, from birth to mid-life crisis (originally until death, but revised down). Gary Tushaw’s attractively awkward Joe is the town doctor's son and inherits his father's calling, which seems too special a career for an everyman, but his story arc calls for the temptation of status and wealth.

ALLEGRO 3 Gary Tushaw (Joseph Taylor Jr.) and company Photo Scott Rylander

The musical opens with the townsfolk's extravagant celebration of Joe’s birth. As he grows they tenderly manipulate a puppet 'playing' Joe as a toddler taking his first steps. The intense delight of the town’s scrutiny, paired with the greys and tans of their ginghams contrasting with the splashes of colour worn by Joe and his parents (thanks to costume designer Jonathan Lipman), puts you wise. These smiling small-town men and women aren’t just wonderfully matched singers and perfectly-drilled dancers, but also the all-seeing chorus, mediating between audience and protagonists. In the original Broadway production there were over 100 dancers alone. Here, less is more, especially given Proud’s eloquent choreography.

This is a tale of challenge, disappointment and compromise, where boy might get girl, but they might not live happily ever after. The first half features Joe’s youth: at college with fellow medical freshman Charlie (wickedly charming Dylan Turner), who has all the confidence around girls Joe lacks; marriage to childhood sweetheart Jennie (Emily Bull), after an on/off courtship and despite parental misgivings (which his deceased mother (Julia J Nagle) gets to voice after death too).

ALLEGRO 4 Gary Tushaw (Joseph Taylor Jr.) Emily Bull (Jennie Brinker) and company Photo Scott Rylander

The second (shorter) half moves with the 'allegro' of the title, emulating the fast pace of life in the big city. Jennie pushes Joe to accept a society medic’s job in Chicago to escape poverty when the Depression hits town. But Joe is uncomfortable ministering to wealthy hypochondriacs and Jennie is playing away again. Will he return to his roots, especially now that he's working alongside Katie Bernstein’s clear-eyed nurse Emily?

Bernstein is terrific in the show’s most memorable number, The Gentleman is a Dope. Hers is a late standout performance in perfect counterpoint to Bull’s full-blooded anti-heroine.

The show is elegantly rounded off with a reprise of One Foot Other Foot, the number that described Joe as a puppet toddler, serving as a metaphor for his philosophy of life. Mark Cumberland has artfully arranged the score for just eight musicians, mainly woodwind and brass. At times it can be over-the-top-upbeat and wholesome, but it’s cleverly done and no doubt Allegro’s late creators would be gratified by its realisation of their vision and intent, if they too, as ghosts, could comment on the action. Perhaps we’ll find out what their gopher on that first production thinks of it if he gets to see it, for young Stephen Sondheim also grew up to fulfil his destiny.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

Allegro runs until Saturday 10 September, 7.30pm & 3pm, £25, £20 concs, at Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, SE1 6BD; 020 7407 0234.

JR OutLoud: Judi Herman speaks to the brains behind the musical retelling of the real-life riches to rags story, Grey Gardens

Photo © Scott Rylander

In the mid-1970s Albert and David Maysles – first-generation sons of Jewish immigrants to the US from Eastern Europe – made Grey Gardens, one of their most famous films. The documentary told the story of a mother and daughter from the highest echelons of US Society, Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, who were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The two Bouvier Beale women were discovered living as reclusive social outcasts in Grey Gardens, a dilapidated mansion overrun by cats that was so squalid the Health Department deemed it “unfit for human habitation”.

Now another creative Jewish pair, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, together with book writer Doug Wright, have brought their multi-award-winning musical based on the film to London. JR’s arts editor Judi Herman, who saw Thom Southerland’s European premiere starring Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell, was enchanted by this riches to rags story, as you’ll hear in her interview with the three writers.

Grey Gardens runs until Saturday 6 February, 7.30pm & 3pm, £25, £20 concs, at Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, SE1 6BD; 020 7407 0234.

Watch the cult documentary Grey Gardens in full below:

See Jenna Russell sing Another Winter in a Summer Town from the musical:

Review – Grand Hotel ★★★★★ – Judi Herman recommends a stay at the five-star Grand Hotel as 1920s Berlin comes to Southwark

Grand Hotel 2 Victoria Serra (Flaemmchen) with rest of the cast Photo Aviv Ron ★★★★★

Many musicals have varied fortunes but Grand Hotel might have the longest history. It started in 1929 as a novel and then evolved into a play by Austrian-Jewish writer Vicki Baum as Menschen im Hotel (People in the Hotel), exploring the extraordinary stories of guests and staff over one weekend in the best hotel in Berlin. It then became an academy award winning film in 1932 and in 1958, fresh from the success of Kismet, Luther Davis (who authored the accompanying book), as well as George Forrest and Robert Wright (both on lyrics duty) relocated the setting to Rome for their musical version starring Paul Muni. It opened on the West Coast to mixed reviews, straying quite a way from the original storyline, but Muni was ill and the punters wanted to see a closer version of the film so everyone decided against a Broadway opening.

Decades later, in 1989, the trio tried again, returning the show to its original setting of 1928 Berlin. Director/choreographer Tommy Tune insisted on calling in Maury Yeston (who had enjoyed huge success with the musical Nine) to add new songs and some fresh lyrics and the ensuing non-stop production of overlapping dialogue, musical numbers and dance routines encapsulated the mood of a bustling hotel. This, combined with the intersecting stories – of a fading ballerina, a debt-laden but handsome young Baron, a desperate businessman, a war-hardened doctor, a typist with Hollywood dreams and a dying Jewish bookkeeper who wants to spend his life's savings to live his final days at the hotel in the lap of luxury – propelled the show to over 1000 performances on Broadway. Yet it was a flop in London just a few years later, though it had better fortune when it was revived as a lost musical at central London's Donmar theatre in 2004.

Thom Southerland has a great track record directing big musicals in intimate spaces (think Parade, The Grand Tour and Mack and Mabel – all boasting Jewish creative involvement). Here he’s back at the Southwark Playhouse he knows so well, working seamlessly with choreographer Lee Proud to create all the bustle and elegance of a 1920s grand hotel on designer Lee Newby’s cleverly traverse set. With just a faux marble floor and a few chairs, the cast suggest the opulence of Berlin’s top hotel; and their movement quality, at the same time breathless and purposeful, works wonderfully with the soundscape of their voices raised in a musical hubbub to suggest the lives of guests and staff that intersect there.

Grand Hotel 1 Victoria Serra (Flaemmchen) with rest of the cast Photo Aviv Ron

Musical Director Michael Bradley and orchestration adaptor and musical supervisor Simn Lee fully exploit a sound that is at once big, but dominated as it is by strings (two violins, a viola, cello and contrabass, plus drums and keyboards), not brassy – so it is again evocative of those grand hotels. Although the sound quality is good, it does not, of course, come from the singers, but from the amplifiers, which is a shame. But sacrificing audibility would be so much worse.

Like the narratives of the guests, the songs from Yeston and his co-creators intersect too with a powerful drive, so that at times the musical is through song, and of course they carry both narrative and characterisation. What is so impressive about the performances is the physicality of the cast and I don’t just mean their terrific dancing. Making her UK debut, Italian star Christine Grimandi plays Grushinskaya with all the lithe grace of a dancer – and just a little stiffness to betray the dancer’s age. She’s well matched by ramrod straight, whippet-slim Valerie Cutko as Raffaela, her adoring aide, hinting at her unrequited love with touching subtlety. Cutko took over the role on Broadway but her interpretation is fresh as a daisy here.

It’s easy to see why Southerland and other musical theatres love to cast Victoria Serra in roles as vivid as Flaemmchen, the typist and wannabe star who has already chosen that stage name and is prepared to do almost anything to get to Hollywood. Serra gives Flaemmchen a lovely mixture of naïve vulnerability and a hard-boiled determination to get what she wants, even if it means offering distasteful sexual favours. Plus there are lovely subtleties to her voice.

The male guests and staff also give strong performances that match the strength and urgency of their stories. At the epicentre of the play is that handsome Baron, up to his ears in gambling debts and prepared to take as many risks as Raffles the gentleman burglar to stay afloat and live the high life. Scott Garnham plays him with charm and panache – and real tenderness when he falls for the intended victim of a jewellery heist, the ageing Grushinskaya. There are some lovely plot twists that enable him to do more than one good turn, despite his dishonesty, which Garnham clearly relishes. Among the recipients of his kindness are assistant concierge Erik, who spends the entire musical in anguish at being unable to attend his wife’s protracted labour and Otto Kringelein, that terminally ill young Jew determined to make the most of his last days. It would be so easy for these characters to spill over into mawkishness, but instead Jonathan Stewart as Erik and George Rae as Otto give perfomances that are both are rounded and sympathetic.

Grand Hotel 2  Scott Garnham Photo Aviv Ron

Jacob Chapman is not afraid to be unsympathetic as failing businessman Hermann Preysing. But you see him at breaking point as his failing company drives him to ever more desperate measures and of course he is caught up in the start of the financial collapse that is about to lead to the Great Depression.

The stories are held together by a narrator figure, Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag, fighting the pain of a First World War wound with self-injected morphine. It's hard to believe David Delve took over the role of this all-knowing figure at short notice, so authoritative and assured is his performance. There's not a weak link in any of the supporting cast. On the contrary, their dancing in particular is breathtaking, especially in a joyfully sophisticated Charleston number. And Jammy Kasongo and Durone Stokes are jawdroppingly thrilling in their tap dancing and other duets.

If the story looks back to the First World War and takes place on the eve of the Great Depression, in this production at any rate, there is a powerful closing tableau – each of the cast deposits a suitcase on a growing pile centre stage as the lights fade around it. Could this be a presage of the coming displacement of millions in World War Two and of the Holocaust that will overtake so many in Berlin and so many of the guests at the Grand Hotel?

But meanwhile, if you get a chance to check in to this five-star hotel your pleasure is assured!

By Judi Herman

Photography by Aviv Ron

Grand Hotel runs until Saturday 5 September. 7.30pm & 3pm. £12-£22. Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, SE1 6BD; 020 7407 0234. 


★★★★★ From now on JR will be giving star-ratings to shows – and appropriately Grand Hotel gets five stars!