Bye Bye Birdie, Hello sexually frustrated small-town America

Bye Bye Birdie – Ye Olde Rose & Crown, until 04 September 2015 (Tickets)Bye-Bye-Birdie-c-David-Ovenden-500x350

Life in post-war America seems to be one of the most curious periods in recent history. Despite, or more likely because of, the horrors of the previous decade, the 1950’s gives the impression of existing in a snowdome; a quaintly innocent age forever frozen in time protected from the changes to come. Apple pie, mom and pop diners, white-picket fences, the nuclear family; snapshot stereotypes summoned up by small-town conservatives as they hark back to a period they feel we never should have left.

byebye1Uncovering the truth behind the myth is one of the joys of Bye Bye Birdie. Performed on Broadway in 1960, this Tony-Award musical is notable for retaining its modernity right into 2015. Spoofing the hysteria surrounding Elvis Presley’s draft notice into the army, it explodes ideas that are often casually accepted about the period and raises questions about how rose-tinted are the glasses through which we look to the past.

Sharply written, it captures the casual racism (witness an amazing string of close-to-the-knuckle one-liners spewing forth from Mae Patterson’s Jayne Ashley) and assumed patriarchal control (witness a highly hilarious rant from Harry Hart’s continually undermined Harry Macafaee) of the times. It is a world where girls become women at fifteen and are seen as fair game from predatory rock ‘n roll stars. The town has a bubbling undercurrent of sexual frustration slowly heading towards boiling point before exploding with the arrival of Zac Hamilton’s Conrad Birdie.

That it found an audience in 1960 America is perhaps not surprising, but it is also not so surprising that it has fallen out of fashion in the UK to the extent that it has never had a major UK revival since playing for 269 performances in 1961. It is not really ‘our’ history. We were too busy clearing up bomb damage and inventing skiffle to find time to buy a Buick Convertible and head off to the 5-and-dime for a soda pop.

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Small is beautiful in first-class fringe revival

Face The Music – All Star Productions @ Ye Olde Rose and Crown, until 03 July 2015 (tickets)

Sometimes, through no fault of their own, theatres are so indelibly linked with a traumatic experience that all plays there become tarred by association. Three years ago I sat in a sweltering black box theatre above the Rose and Crown and watched WAG: The Musical – a show so terrible it effectively caused me to avoidwpid-wp-1434282633307.jpg my local Walthamstow-based theatre ever since.

During that time All Star Productions have continued to develop their reputation as purveyors of solid fringe productions of near forgotten musicals. Having seen a production of Howard Goodall’s Girlfriends that showed the limitations of the venue alongside the strength of the performances, the team had rather fallen off my radar during to the horror of the singing footballers’ wives.

However whispers across the blogging sphere in the intervening years had led me to believe All Star Productions had been going from strength to strength, and earlier this year they scored a West End transfer when Superman: The Musical made it to the Leicester Square theatre. So when an unexpected, but wholly welcomed, invitation to accompany View From The Gods to the depths of E17 to watch an Irving Berlin & Moss Hart musical that I had not previously heard of, Civilian Theatre finally felt it was time to seek closure on the past.

All Star Productions should be lauded for their dedication for restaging the unknown and the forgotten. I would imagine it is a rather canny financial position as well – one would think the staging rights to an Irving Berlin musical not performed for 70 years are rather less than for Anything Goes. It also doesn’t come weighted with expectation and if it proves to be a success then you may find yourself – well if not Cameron Mackintosh rich – then at least as rich as Croesus.

Face The Music has the distinction of being the first collaboration between Berlin & Hart and is the first professional UK staging of the show.  These facts make the show worthy of interest but are certainly not enough to praise it. And the potential downside of All Star Productions dedication is obvious – there may well be good reasons why a musical has sat on the shelf for 70 years.

While it may lack the absolute belters that can be found in the best works of both Berlin & Hart, there are still some lovely tunes in here. If You Believe closes the first half and is a thumping, toe-tapping cod-evangelical feel that musical devotees will find has distinct echoes of Blow, Gabriel, Blow, that wonderful number which kicks-off the second half of Anything Goes. Equally songs like Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee, My Beautiful Rhinestone Cowboy and Manhattan Madness are not ground-breaking numbers but they do tend to be quite delightful (or given who we are talking about, possibly it is in fact de-lovely).

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Musical Theatre: Comparing old with new

Last week I had the somewhat dubious pleasure of sampling two musicals. One is a scathing social satire on contemporary values whereas the other is a gruesome tale of revenge that ends in a bloodbath for all concerned. One is a complex work that draws on recurring classical motifs whilst the other takes a magpie approach to the classic styles of twentieth century musicals. One is regarded as one of the great musicals by a legend in his field. The other has been championed by Lorraine Kelly. But are we letting reputations get ahead of us?

In the interests of fairness, Civilian Theatre has assessed the merits of both shows to see whether Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the perennially popular Stephen Sondheim musical that won rave reviews at the Chichester Festival last year and has since transferred to the West End, is really any better than WAG! The Musical, which was enjoying its world premiere at the Ye Olde Rose and Crown in Walthamstow.

So there you have it, a win for the WAGS. The colossus of Broadway has been brought to his knees by some upstart wives of footballers. As any sportsman knows – the stats don’t lie. WAG! the musical has proved itself every inch the equal of Sweeney Todd and Sondheim (lyricist for West Side Story, Academy Award Winner, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Winner of 8 Tony’s, 8 Grammy’s and 6 Olivier Awards and with a theatre named after him) clearly has been humbled by a new challenger for the crown.

See more here:

WAG!

Sweeney Todd

Editors Note: Apologies to Mr Sondheim for the misspelt Sweeney in the above article. If I hadn’t been moved close to despair by uploading gremlins then the amendment would have been made.