Motown Magic Reigns Supreme
Motown the Musical is a joyous celebration of one of the most definitive sounds of the Sixties, writes Anne Marie Scanlon
The Sunday Independent
It's a Bucket List dream. See all the stars of Motown live on stage in one place. In 1983 the musicians of Motown reunited in LA to celebrate the first 25 years of the now legendary record label. This is also the starting point for Motown the Musical which looks back at the first quarter century of the label, whilst also telling the story of Berry Gordy, the man who created the brand. Gordy also created the careers of some of the all time greats. Gordy coined the term Motown, short for Motor Town, in honour of the city where the label was founded – Detroit, then the home of General Motors.
The record producer had worked on a GM production line and applied this knowledge to the music industry managing to become one of the most successful African American business owners in an era where some States were still segregated.
Gordy and Motown launched the successful careers of many black artists such as The Supremes, “Little” Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, The Temptations and of course Miss Diana Ross.
Gordy himself wrote this show and doesn't hold back on the significant role Diana Ross played in his personal life. (To be honest, I think he still loves her.)
The rest of Gordy’s personal life (three wives and eight children) doesn’t feature but to be fair to the writer he doesn't present himself as sainted or perfect.
During the sixties and seventies Gordy faced much criticism from the black community that, while Motown was a black-owned label which promoted black artists, it was run by white men and this is addressed more than once in the show.
But all of this is by the by. While the story of Motown and Gordy's life is interesting the real draw is the music (over 50 Motown hits being sung in full or in part).
That Gordy and his team had an ear for a good tune is beyond doubt and the vast majority of the audience, which was made up of all ages, knew all the words to sing along.
Star-maker Gordy is also a notorious perfectionist and it certainly shows. Motown the Musical goes beyond 'Jukebox Musical' and all the performances - acting, dancing and singing are extraordinary and at no point do you feel like you're watching a 'tribute act'.
The fine details are also spot on, with costumes and sets being recreated in detail from original shows and TV appearances. The costume department deserve special credit – especially with the period outfits as worn by ‘ordinary’ people. All too often in theatre people are clothed in the designer's idea of what that era looked like.
The show also deploys an audio visual display of images, news and TV reports to put events in the context of the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Vietnam and the rise of the Black Power movement.
One particularly moving scene between Berry Gordy (Jay Perry, who plays a blinder throughout) and Marvin Gaye (a fantastic Carl Spencer) stands out. When Gaye, who was one of the most successful Motown artists, wants to use his platform and music for political protest his mentor insists that he’s just a Pop Star. This scene also contains the sad and prophetic line that Gaye says to Gordy “I have a father.” (Gaye was shot dead on the eve of his 45th birthday by his own father.)
The staging of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles singing You Really Got a Hold on Me in front of a segregated audience is, to my mind, the best scene in the whole show. The music is top notch – as it is throughout the show but this scene is a reminder to modern audiences of how brutal segregation was.
As police escorts on stage start throwing the N-word around like snuff at a wake my 11-year-old child’s jaw literally dropped. He was horrified, as were many in the audience. And despite this David Albury as Smokey still makes the audience laugh.
Finally, Miss Ross. While Jay Perry was astonishing as Berry Gordy most of the audience don’t have a personal relationship with him. Miss Ross though, is quite a different matter. We’ve all grown up with her, her songs and those of the Supremes have been our collective soundtrack. And Natalie Kassanga was her.
Honestly, grown men and women, myself included, forgot that we weren’t in the presence of the Miss Ross. And when we did remember we didn’t care. As the theatre emptied at the end of the night, there was actually some dancing in the streets.
Cirque du Soleil
Anne Marie Scanlon
The Sunday Independent
Fear of clowns is such a ‘thing’ that the term ‘coulrophobia’ was specifically minted to explain it. My own coulrophobia is firmly rooted in experience. Bear with me now. When I a very small child my mother took me to the Circus. A large nail sticking out of the bench we sat on ripped a massive hole in my trousers (cords if I remember correctly) and it was sheer luck that the same nail hadn’t torn a large hole in me.
My mother, as you can imagine, was extremely upset. After the show, she went into the arena to have a word with the Ring Master. While they were talking a pair of clowns, were, quite literally, kicking around in the background. Up close their large feet were quite disturbing, but when one of them smiled at me, and I saw his real mouth move in the opposite direction of his painted on mouth, it was game over. Since then I have loathed the circus and found clowns about as funny as being hit repeatedly in the face with a plank of wood.
Cirque de Soleil is not a traditional circus – they’re famous for not exploiting animals, but even at Cirque there’s no escaping clowns. Well, imagine my shock when at Ovo, Cirque’s latest show, the clowns were my absolute favourite thing. Instead of sitting there with a face like setting porridge I was doubled over laughing.
Actually it’s unfair to say the clowns were my favourite thing – it’s impossible to have a ‘favourite thing’ at this show. Ovo is set in the world beneath our feet – between the blades of grass where colourful insects live and love. The story revolves around an outsider, a fly (Jan Dutler) who arrives to the insect community with a mysterious object on his back (an egg, the Ovo of the title). He then falls in love with a Lady Bug (Neiva Nascimento) who has the most fabulous handbag, shaped like a strawberry. But there’s a, ahem, fly in the ointment, a Scarab Beetle also thinks the Lady Bug is the Bee’s Knees. OK, I’ll stop now.
All of the outfits are fabulous, Costume Designer Liz Vandal’s beautiful colourful creations easily identify the various insects. Both the individual and cumulative effect is stunning. The bright green Crickets make a huge visual impact before they even start to move but that’s nothing when it comes to their scene-stealing wall walking. I almost had Vertigo watching and all the while my brain kept doubting what my eyes were actually seeing. The show is full of ‘gasp out loud’ moments and the wall walking is truly jaw-dropping.
The bright red ants perform precision juggling with their feet using large ‘Kiwi Slices’. These look flimsy, but in reality they’re extremely heavy, dropping one could cause seriously injury and yet they are juggled and passed between ‘ants’ in such a seamless and ‘easy’ way that Craig Revel Horwood himself would weep with joy at the sight.
By contrast the ‘Flight of the Butterflies’ performed by two performers clad in white costumes, complete with wings and antennae, is a sensuous sexy dance that combines hand-to-hand ballet, contortion and an aerial flying act. The “pas de deux in which they swoop and land, leap and fly in perfect unison” is a wonderful visual portrayal of love and lust without anyone removing their clothing.
The agility of the performers is nothing short of miraculous. They all push their bodies to the very limit and make it look easy, like they’re made of rubber and have no bones at all. I’ve never felt so unfit in my life – especially when I witnessed a real live human being, quite literally, bending over backwards – from the waist. (Not a word of a lie, I went home and did a few stretches before I went to bed).
The set, like the costumes, is a riot of colour and invention by Gringo Cardia. In general, I’m a words person. I like stories that are laid out for me, with a plot I can follow. With Ovo, there are few words, and where they are uttered they make a huge impact. The show is an incredible experience on so many different levels and I can highly recommend Ovo as a unique and wonderful night out.
CIRQUE DU SOLEIL
OVO OCTOBER 10 - 16, 2018
AT 3ARENA, DUBLIN
Flying a kite for this most spectacular production
Khaled Hosseini's best seller The Kite Runner soars in this production of Matthew Spangler's stage adaptation writes
Anne Marie Scanlon
The Sunday Independent
Where to begin with The Kite Runner? The play was adapted from the best-selling book of the same name by Khaled Hosseini in 2007 before the film version came out.
Ostensibly the story is about two childhood friends Amir and Hassan but their complicated relationship also gives rise to many other issues which are confronted by the drama.
The Kite Runner deals with male friendship, toxic masculinity, the father/son dynamic as well as that of master and servant, friendship and betrayal. Tribalism, religious and cultural sensibilities also feature.
Then there’s also the story of Afghanistan itself how it went from a relaxed peaceful haven to a place governed by dictatorial Taliban, many of whom used the cover of religion to exercise their own inherent hatreds and vices.
Yes, that’s a lot to pack in in just over two hours, and I haven’t even mentioned the immigrant experience in the United States. Given the sheer volume of themes Matthew Spangler who adapted the novel has done a stellar job. However, The Kite Runner is by no means a perfect play – the script could be tighter at times.
Having said that this production is so spectacular in terms of acting, sound and lighting that the imperfect script is overwhelmed by the sheer energy and emotion of the cast. The play kicks off in the early 70s and concerns two young boys Amir (Raj Ghatak) and Hassan (Jo Ben Ayed) who are best friends. Amir is the more dominant one, being older by a year, a Suni Muslim and the son of a rich man. Hassan, a Shia Muslim, is the son of Amir’s father’s servant.
Both boys have lost their mothers, Amir’s in childbirth while Hassan’s ran off with a theatre group.
Raj Ghatak who plays Amir is a veteran of stage, television and films having appeared in EastEnders, Dead Set (the precursor to Charlie Brooker’s much acclaimed Black Mirror series) and in Mrs Browns Boys D'Movie. Jo Ben Ayed by contrast has just left drama school and this is his first big role (apart from playing the Easter Bunny in a chocolate commercial).
Both actors exude energy and absolutely own the stage. Their boyish games and kite flying is highly synchronised and put me in mind of the two Gars, in Brien Friels Philadelphia Here I Come. Movement Director Kitty Winter has done a wonderful job managing to sychronise the movements whilst keeping them natural.
While both Ghatak and Ayed give powerful, funny and emotionally wrenching performances, I’d question director Giles Croft choice for Hassan’s voice. Yes, he's meant to be a young boy and the sing-song high pitch may be how some tweenage boys speak but with prolonged exposure it becomes irritating which undermines what is a fantastic performance by Ayed.
Praise is also due to Gary Pillai who plays Amir’s father Baba, a man who goes from great riches to being smuggled out of his home country to doing menial labour in America just to get by. Pillai, is a very subtle actor and as such his work could be easily overlooked.
Less subtle, but that’s the part as it is written, is Soroosh Lavasini who is terrifying as the villain of the piece Assef, who starts out as a childhood bully and goes on to make brutalising and terrorising people his life’s work. I shrank back in my seat every time he appeared on stage.
Assef is responsible for the horrific act that changes the lives of the two fathers and sons at the heart of the story. I don’t want to give away spoilers but I wasn’t the only one with my hands on my face, utterly horrified at the end of the first act.
Apart from the stellar performances of all of the main cast members lighting and sound are an integral part of the production. Charles Balfour’s lighting design is such that it is capable of changing mood, atmosphere, scene or country.
Composer and Musical Director Jonathan Girling has done an absolutely outstanding job. The live music, including having Tabla player Hanif Khan on stage throughout, while enhancing the story and making the play much more of an ‘experience’, is so good it would easily stand alone.
At the end of the play many audience members were in tears. In the bathroom one young woman was absolutely wracked with sobs and being consoled by another girl. While the play is emotionally draining and shocking at times there are lighter moments as well. (But you'd best bring plenty of tissues anyway).
As Amir says at the start, you can bury the past but “the past claws it’s way out.” While terrible things afflict the characters and indeed the country of Afghanistan, the takeaway from this superb production is one of hope for the future.
Sheridan Spectacular as Funny Girl Brice
Sheridan Smith is simply a phenomenal being, with the ability to act, sing and dance, as well as having impeccable comic timing. She is the Funny Girl. Barbra who?
The Sunday Independent
Funny Girl is synonymous with two women. Fanny Brice, the funny lady of the title, the vaudevillian star of early twentieth century Broadway and Barbara Streisand who got her big break when starred in the original Broadway show in 1964 before reprising the role in the 1968 film for which she won an Oscar.
At the risk of raining on Streisand’s parade and irritating her legion of fans, playing Brice wasn’t that much of a stretch. Both women were Jewish New Yorkers who could turn their hand to singing, dancing, acting and comedy. Similarly, both women were known for not being typically “beautiful.” What chance would anyone, let alone, a pretty girl from Lincolnshire like Sheridan Smith, have of outdoing Streisand?
Nothing I can write here can convey just how amazing a performer Smith is. As Brice she is wholly convincing as a little Jewish girl in pre World War 1 New York. Her accent, and those of the rest of the cast, is spot on and I know from New York.
Smith is a talented actress as anyone who saw her on TV in The Moorside earlier this year, or in the title role of Cilla last year will know, but by God can she sing. Once you hear her rendition of People Who Need People you will walk out of the theatre thinking “Barbara who?”.
While Smith can turn her hand to anything – breaking your heart one minute and making you break your heart laughing the next, with all her richness of talent it is her comic ability that stands out beyond all else. Smith has physical comedy nailed and her timing is, quite simply, flawless. Not for nothing, (as Fanny would say) is this called Funny Girl and if the original Brice had half as good the comic chops of Smith then no wonder she was a hit.
While Smith plays Brice, a woman who trod the boards over 100 years ago, to perfection there’s something about the actor herself that harks back to a different time. Occasionally Smith’s personal life hits the headlines and it appears that she is in many ways a ‘Tragic Diva’ in the same mould as Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe - that despite all the talent and acclaim that she struggles to sustain happiness. In Funny Girl Brice is a 'Tragic Diva' and it is Smith’s ability to let the audience see her vulnerability that puts the cherry on top of what is already a barnstorming performance.
Brice fell in love with a bad un – Nicky Arnstein, who in Funny Girl is let off the hook as being more of an eejit than a serious criminal. Darius Campbell (formerly known as Danesh) turns in an impeccable performance as the smooth suave Nick and dusts it off with just the right amount of cheese.
Props too to Rachel Izen who plays Fanny’s mother – the relationship between them is so natural that it’s easy to forget that they are not a genuine mother and daughter.
Fanny gets her heart broken but in the old showbiz tradition the show must go on and so must. As Smith reprises Don’t Rain on My Parade, while Fanny paints on a smile, I challenge anyone to see it and not get goose bumps.
Funny Girl is coming to Bord Gais Energy Theatre follow the link for more details http://bordgaisenergytheatre.ie/index.php/artist/funny-girl