Theatre review – Waitress (Diane Paulus, American Repertory Theater, 18th March 2017)

As the star of the show, Jessie Mueller, leads the performance tonight for the final time, I thought it was a good time to write about how lucky I feel to have been able to catch one of her last appearances. 

It has been on Broadway for just under one year, but it felt completely fresh when we saw a matinee performance on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.

The first thing you notice as you walk through the doors at he Repertory is the smell of delicious baking pies. They have pies on sale; I have no idea how I resisted. 

The hallway is decked out like the inside of a café and bakery, with some themed merchandise available. Walking past this and into the theatre, you’re greeted with a stage set that starts to tell the story – pies up the wall providing an edge to the proscenium arch and curtains that would soon reveal a bustling and busy Joe’s Diner, where most of our story is set.

“It only takes a taste”

The story is based on the 2007 film of the same name. Jenna Hunterson (Mueller) is a waitress in  the aforementioned café somewhere in the deepest heart of southern USA. Every day she bakes a new flavour of fresh pie, much to the delight of the frequently-returning customers. She is in a dead-end relationship with aggressive musician Earl (William Popp) and feels her job isn’t going anywhere either. Instead, she gives herself fully to the sugar, butter and flour of her baking, daydreaming as she recalls happier times as a child when she baked with her mother. Her close friendship to two work colleagues – the positively sassy Becky (Charity Angél Dawson) and nervous Dawn (Caitlin Houlahan) – helps her retain her sanity. When she finds out she’s unexpectedly pregnant with Earl’s child, she has to take a visit to her doctor. However, her regular doctor has now retired and has been replaced with the young and handsome Dr Jim Pomatter (Drew Gehling), who appears as interested in Jenna as he is with her fantastic baking ability.

There were some hot tickets on Broadway the week we visited, with Inside Evan Hansen and a previewing Hello, Dolly! garnering the most interest outside the top tier musicals Like Hamilton, The Lion King and The Book of Mormon. It was, therefore, a shock to discover just how good this musical is, with a plot as deep as one of Jenna’s deep-dish blueberry pies.

“What a mess I’m making”

This is a musical that touches on failed life goals, unwanted pregnancies, extra-marital affairs and the acceptance of compromise. It’s all done, for the most part, with a touch of humour and grace that elevates the more sombre moments.

But it doesn’t just stop there. Most of the plot and delivery is taken or derived from the story of the original film, so the thing that really sets it apart from its origins is the fine music provided by Sara Barielles. The songs are suitably pitched somewhere between Americana and country, perfect for the setting. They are simply excellent songs. 

The comedy pairing of Dawn and Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald) supplies plenty of laughs and they are given two of the most memorable songs: “When He Sees Me” and “Never Gonna Let You Go”. Becky gets her chance to shine early in the second half with “I Didn’t Plan It”. But it is inevitably Jenna that gets the opportunity to wow the audiences with some of the best songs in a new musical this decade: show opener “What’s Inside?”, “What Baking Can Do” and “Everything Changes”.

Losing an iconic star of a musical always risks feeling like the end of a chapter, though with show writer Sara Bareilles ready to step into the role she created there is a sense of excitement over where it will go. Losing Mueller is a great loss and her infectious enthusiasm for the show has clearly affected the whole cast. With the male leads also being replaced the whole show will feel completely refreshed (Chris Diamantopoulous and Will Swenson take over as Dr. Pomatter and Earl respectively on 31st March).

Here’s hoping the changes to the cast will breathe yet more life into it and see its popularity grow.


Academy Award for Best Original Song – What could be nominated?

At 1:18pm on Tuesday 24th January, the nominations for the 89th Academy Awards will be announced. Whilst most of the categories are fairly open – albeit with a host of strong contenders likely to lead the field – some of the categories are long-listed ahead of the announcement.

One such category is for Best Original Song, which has a 91-strong long list out for all to see on the official Oscars website. Many of them simply won’t get a look in, even though it would have been great for Sausage Party’s “The Great Beyond” to have a giant spotlight shone on it.

Here I take a look at some of the likely contenders for the big prize. It’s worth noting that at the Academy Awards, only two songs from one motion picture can be nominated and only five can be nominated in total.

The Obvious Choices

There are a few songs that are almost certain to be included. It seems unlikely that La La Land won’t get at least one song in there, probably two. Those will most likely be Golden Globe winner “City of Stars” and the excellent “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)“. Sorry John Legend!

Elsewhere, it would be a bit of a shock if the best track from the wonderful Disney animation Moana, “How Far I’ll Go“, doesn’t get a nod. It would be fantastic if the 16-year-old breakout star Auli’i Cravalho was invited to perform too!

I can’t see a situation where Kim Burrell and Pharrell Williams miss out for “I See A Victory“. Great song, great performers and supposedly a very good film too. A no brainer.

Entertainment Value Choices

It’s not always the case, but most of the nominees will be performing on the night of the ceremony. As such, it’s likely there will be at least one choice that will boost the ratings by planting a big-named performer in the middle of the night. It would be great to see Justin Timberlake performing his summer smash “Can’t Stop The Feeling“from Trolls. Another good option would be “Faith“, the track from the animated film Sing as performed by Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande. P!nk’s “Just Like Fire” from Alice Through The Looking Glass would fit this bill too.

Sia’s gorgeous song “Angel By The Wings“, from the critically-acclaimed documentary The Eagle Huntress, is a great excuse to put her in front of millions of people and blow them away, though “Never Give Up” from Lion (same artist, different film) might be more of a crowd-pleaser.

The Outside Bets

I’d love to see “A Minute To Breathe” get a nod. The song, from “Before The Flood” and performed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, would be an unusual but brilliant choice, the song blending some understated backing that leaves the focus squarely on the lyrics. As he sings “We’ll all be judged by what we leave behind,” the hairs will stand up on the back of your neck.

Gary Clark Jr.’s “Take Me Down” might not be an obvious choice, and Deepwater Horizon probably isn’t going to feature heavily in the other categories, but it would be great to have a song in there for no other reason than it’s a great song. 

Finally, we can only hope that they give in to the luscious electronic indie of Sing Street and grant “Drive It Like You Stole It” some space at the biggest cinematic awards event of the year.

Film review – Absolute Beginners (Julien Temple, 1986)

Panned on its original release and a complete commercial failure [1], Julian Temple’s musical Absolute Beginners is a film that is often cited as the cause of a partial collapse of the British film industry. Looking at it with fresh eyes, the criticisms are undoubtedly harsh, but the film still has too many flaws to warrant anything more than cult status.

The musical charts the on-off romantic relationship between aspiring model Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit) and unestablished photographer Colin (Eddie O’Connell) as they try to make their way in 1950s London. Weaving elements of gang warfare, race riots and youth culture in a way that is almost brilliant, but largely incoherent.

It wuzza strange casting choice

The film starts with the familiar sound of David Bowie’s title track, which was a global hit at the time and proved to be one of his most enduring songs. If, like me, you were made aware of it solely because David Bowie has a named role in the film, then prepare to feel shortchanged. Bowie stars as Vendice Partners, a sales and marketing man who first appears about halfway through the film. By all accounts, his prominence in the film was more a marketing choice than an artistic choice, but his scenes breathe life into a stagnant portion of the film as it threatens to grind to a halt.

Temple was famed for his music videos and by the time this film was released he’d been responsible for some of the most celebrated music videos of the 1980s, including efforts for the likes of The Beat, Culture Club, The Sex Pistols, Depeche Mode, The Kinks and Sade. Some of the best moments in Absolute Beginners are the standalone tracks that could be lifted straight out of the film and placed on MTV. The two best examples are Ray Davies’s ‘Quiet Life’ and David Bowie’s ‘That’s Motivation’, the latter of which has Bowie tap dancing around a giant typewriter.

The film’s lack of focus is its downfall. When Colin gets caught up in the Notting Hill race riots in the final third of the film, he takes a wrong turn to avoid danger and ends up in a neo-Nazi war rally. This is a scene that creates some really powerful imagery but the themes had been underplayed in the build up, making its inclusion neither relevant nor integral to the plot. Indeed, the threat of violence is imminent all around the city without ever feeling anything more than a light touch suggestion. Yes, it’s a musical, but I can’t help think that if they’d just cut a couple of needless scenes earlier in the film there could have been a better balance struck between the romantic side and the social commentary. It is hard to believe that the die-hard fans of the book don’t feel the same way.

It was a troubled film to develop and the brilliant 53-minute documentary now included in the Blu-ray release is enough justification to pick up a copy. It’s also a curiosity for fans of any of the stars in this bizarrely-assembled cast. It is, however, not a good piece of cinema.

[1] Absolute Beginners took £1.8m at the box office in the UK and $930k in the USA against a budget of £8.4m.

Film review -トウキョウ トライブ / Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono, 2014)

Movies should aspire to be the best in their genre. There’s no point existing as a movie unless you can at least be better than everything that has gone before in your genre. If you can’t do that, then why not mold yourself a new genre completely?

With that in mind, I am proud to announce that Tokyo Tribe is the best Japanese-language rap-musical in the tribal gang realm.

The story is pretty hard to explain. To summarise, we are let into a highly stylised version of modern Tokyo, where tribal gangs vie to rule the city. Set over one night, we see the heightening tensions as ganglord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), his henchman Mera (Ryuhei Suzuki) and son Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) declare war on all other tribes in Tokyo, announcing as much by killing the popular peace advocate Tera (Ryuta Sato). The uprising against their power trip is led by central heroine Sunmi (Nana Seino), and multiple stylised battles culminate in a dawn all-out-war.

Sunmi beat the living daylights out of another bunch of extras

Sunmi beat the living daylights out of another bunch of extras

Amazingly, the intertwining of multiple storylines and characters is reminiscent of Love Actually, though the comparisons inevitably end there. In fact, at times it’s simply hard to follow just who the central characters are. About 90% of the dialogue is delivered as rapping, so as an English native who barely speaks any Japanese it is hard to follow what are clearly some very fast and rhythmical lyrics. On this occasion, it really pays to speak the language.
Another issue is the excessive number of characters that are continuously being introduced into the mix. It felt at times like several characters were frivolously being added in too late for us to care about who they are, often getting only a handful of lines to describe who they are, what tribe they represent and a little about themselves before disappearing for the rest of the film.

That said, there is a memorable turn from Cyborg Kaori as a beatboxing servant, which is worth watching out for. She does things with her voice that seem completely unnatural. The results are fascinating and her various YouTube videos are worth checking out. This is an example of a distinct character being given the chance to shine; it’s a shame that the cast wasn’t smaller so more focus could be given to each of the talented artists involved.

Many of the featured actors and actresses, however, are new to the hip hop world and the intriguing on-disc Making Of documentary reveals a lot of the insecurities of the stars, particularly with standout performer Nana Seino. She’s clearly a talented actress but it’s sad she was the focus of such a lot of “fan-service” throughout the film.

Stylisitically, the film is top notch. From start to finish there is no break in the feeling that the characters inhabit this entirely alternate reality and in that sense it is a great success.

The same cannot be said for the storyline.

At times it’s a brilliantly unique film that threatens instant cult-classic status. Often it’s just a complete mess that loses itself in style over storyline. If you know of Sono Shion and liked his previous efforts then you know you’ll enjoy this. If not, then approach with caution.

Tokyo Tribe can be purchased on Blu-Ray in the UK now and was released by Eureka films.

Memphis (Shaftesbury Theatre, London)

Performance Date: 27th May 2015
Location: Shaftesbury Theatre, London
Cast: Rachel John as Felicia Farrell, Jon Robyns as Huey Calhoun

After a poor choice of show last time my wife and I visited the West End (see my review of the stale Thriller), we were desperate to get it right this time. Visiting the West End is not a cheap experience, no matter where your seats are, and we wanted a feel-good show that would lift our spirits for the rest of the day. Memphis was the perfect choice and delivered on every promise the hype gave us.

The musical, set in 1955 Memphis, was written Joe DiPietro (book) and David Bryan (score). Huey Calhoun, a young white man from a poor family, is trying to make headway in the Memphis Beale Street clubs. He quickly becomes entranced by a young black singer named Felicia and they start a relationship, despite the protests from his mother and her brother. As his career leads him into being a DJ on a mainstream Memphis radio station, he becomes a champion of black R&B music and helps break it into the subconscious of the white masses. All is going well until their romance is halted by the devestating racial segregation rules of the state of Tennessee.

The plot itself feels slightly reminiscent of Hairspray, albeit from a more mature viewpoint. It elevates it above being a simple romantic tale by adding an element of period-based controversy in a way that just couldn’t be dealt with at the time. It’s a powerful piece of theatre and it was delivered perfectly by everyone involved.

In a way, this is all merely a platform for a huge amount of extremely powerful songs that blew me away throughout. The performance I saw was a Wednesday afternoon, meaning we didn’t see Beverley Knight. Instead, I was treated to the understudy Rachel John, who is destined to grow in popularity if the performance I saw and standing ovation are anything to go be. She has an amazing voice and, to be honest, I feel lucky to have seen her as she’s a perfect fit for the part. The usual male lead Killian Donnelly was also not present (he is soon to be replaced by Matt Cardle anyway), so we were able to catch Jon Robyns as the lead instead. Jon is, in my opinion, one of the West End’s most talented performers and he’s a perfect fit for this role. It’s a shame he’s slightly underused as an understudy but if you can work out when he’s on and get to see him you’ll understand why I’m singing his praises so much.

If you are yet to see Memphis, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a tough battle in the West End to get the tickets sold, but this should be on your “to watch” list if it isn’t already.