“The pace of the production is unrelenting, and the hit list of songs comes thick and fast”
There is ‘Magic to Do’ in the round, underneath the arches at Charing Cross Theatre with this new production of Stephen Schwartz’s classic musical Pippin. Director Steven Dexter takes on his fourth production of the show, developing his version from last autumn at the Garden Theatre.
Performed by a versatile ensemble of eight, Pippin (Ryan Anderson) – with shades of Peer Gynt – goes off on a life journey in search of success and fulfilment, aided and abetted by a troupe of travelling hippie players who may, or may not, have Pippin’s best interests at heart. Always by Pippin’s side is the scheming, snake-hipped Leading Player (Ian Carlyle) who, when not centre stage, can be found observing close by, conducting the band, directing the lighting changes and marshalling his players. He leads Pippin a merry dance intending it to culminate in a sensational Grand Finale – both the show’s and Pippin’s – if fate or love does not intervene.
The set is colourful and vibrant with copious suns and flowers, the circular stage area reminiscent of a big top circus ring. This is 1967, the year of the Summer of Love, and flower-power is in its ascendancy. As we take our seats, the fragrance of incense in the air, Pippin – peace and love symbols embroidered onto his jeans – sits alone, brooding. We hear a soundtrack of sixties songs – The Beach Boys, Cream – interspersed with news bulletins of progress of the Vietnam War. But as the action begins, the period feel becomes less important. This story is timeless.
The pace of the production is unrelenting, and the hit list of songs comes thick and fast – ‘Corner of the Sky’, ‘Glory’, ‘Morning Glow’ ‘Kind of Woman’. The two-piece band is supported by the ensemble with a rhythmic drive of finger clicks, foot stamps and the beating of their own cajons. Together in song and dance they re-enact Pippin’s life, each member taking the role of a significant other in the story: his father, mother, grandmother, lover. And as each player takes centre stage, they are treated to a drum roll from their fellows. Special mention is due here for Genevieve Nicole as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, who so nearly steals the show whilst leading the audience in a sing along of ‘No Time at All’. But everyone excels: the words are clear, the singing powerful, the variety of dance styles exhilarating.
But it is Pippin and the Leading Player who are the equal stars of this show. Anderson is sympathetic in his portrayal of Pippin as his character swings from vulnerability to exuberance and then through apathy to tenderness when he allows himself to find love with his Catherine. And his energy is balanced by Carlyle’s control in showing the Player’s cynicism, persuasion, and drive to produce the spectacular. Together the couple command the stage, and no more than during their duet ‘On the Right Track’.
The production is family-friendly with no severed limbs or decapitated heads. And the sexual hijinks are more sensual and implied than explicit, with no more than a hint of bump-and-grind.
The work of Stephen Schwartz will be well represented this year on the London stage with Wicked, The Prince of Egypt, The Children of Eden and Godspell all upcoming but the run begins here with this fine and most enjoyable revival of his first big success.
“their sheer professionalism shines through each and every musical number”
Once upon a time, back in 1964, a semi-professional harmony group was on its way to its first big gig. While driving in a cherry-red convertible, the group was rehearsing their finale; ‘Love Is a Many Splendored Thing’. They were just getting to their favourite E flat diminished seventh chord when their car collided with a bus full of eager teenagers on their way to watch the Beatles make their U.S. television debut on the Ed Sullivan show. The kids in the bus miraculously escaped uninjured. The harmony, group, however, was killed instantly.
Fast forward to the present. The young guys are still in limbo – as unresolved as their final chord – but they find themselves back on earth for a chance to recreate the concert they never got to perform. It’s a simple set up: the four singers emerge, dressed in white tuxedos, slightly bewildered. Stuart Ross’s tongue in cheek book is updated for the Covid generation by John Plews; with a reference to the audience wearing masks. “Are we in a theatre or an operating theatre?”. But the soul of the piece remains intact. With its light humour, combined with stunning vocal virtuosity, this is a gorgeous antidote to today’s cynicism and cheap send ups. It is a heartfelt homage to an often forgotten but vital period in the history of American popular music.
“Forever Plaid” was the first musical that opened Upstairs at the Gatehouse in 1999, so it is fitting that it should be the first to herald its reopening after the pandemic. Cameron Burt, George Crawford, Christopher Short and Alexander Zane are, respectively, Frankie, Jinx, Smudge and Sparky, who lead us through a celebration of bands such as The Four Aces, The Four Freshmen and The Crew Cuts. Not instantly recognisable names, but the songs are instantly familiar. The musical performance is reminiscent of old variety shows that brought the whole family together around the television set. It is not character driven, but the cast have real personality as they reminisce about the past and try to make sense of the present. They are each portraying amateurs in their craft, but their sheer professionalism shines through each and every musical number.
The songs include ‘Catch a Falling Star’, ‘Cry’, ‘Three Coins in a Fountain’. ‘Heart and Soul’ and many others. The revue is a subtle spectacle, celebrating the flip side of the fifties which has become overshadowed by Rock n’ Roll, Elvis and the Beatles. The comedy is not restricted to the repartee between the songs. There is a wonderful moment when they take on the Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’, tightening the harmonies and singing ‘She Loves You Yes Siree”. There is a Calypso sequence, and a fabulous version of ‘Lady of Spain’ while they mime and juggle and impersonate bygone celebrities.
You don’t need to be an aficionado of the genre to appreciate ‘Forever Plaid’. It obviously helps, but what can’t be helped is the spell that is cast. Each note, sung and spoken is spot on. With musical director Ian Oakley on keys and Jess Martin on double bass, we have a real sense of the warmth and emotional tug of nostalgia. They sing ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’ to close the show – the number the fictitious quartet were rehearsing before they died. They marvel at this dreamlike chance to have a second chance. “Can we pick off where we left off?” they ask. They answer their own question; “Why not? We came back once, we can do it again… A perfect chord. One perfect moment. That’s all anyone has the right to ask for”.
This isn’t the first time that “Forever Plaid” has run at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. And let’s hope it’s not the last.