“despite being predictable to the end, the story flows as harmoniously as the ensemble singing”
The setting for “Soho Cinders” is Old Compton Street, a street that knows no shame, where theatre goers rub shoulders with prostitutes and local businessmen on their way home are having one last drink as they collide with a younger crowd arriving for their first. It is a world which never really existed but you kind of feel it might have done. It is London as we know it, but with a technicolour gloss coating that fits perfectly with this modern-day retelling of ‘Cinderella’.
With music by George Stiles, Lyrics by Anthony Drewe and book by Drewe and Elliot Davis, the classic fable is given a satirical twist with a plot that is, in turns, comedic, romantic and serious. The mix of politics, scandal and true love is flawlessly balanced so that, despite being predictable to the end, the story flows as harmoniously as the ensemble singing.
Young, impoverished student Robbie is ‘Cinderella’, scraping a meagre living in his late mother’s laundrette, but facing eviction from his ‘ugly’ stepsisters who run the strip club next door. He just gets by with the occasional pay off from a local ‘Lord’, but when he begins a secret liaison with the already engaged Mayoral candidate, he looks set to lose everything. And everyone. Luke Bayer captivates as Robbie, having us rooting for him throughout. When he sings “Happy ever afters always turn out wrong”, we both wish and know that he’ll be proven wrong and he’ll find his prince. Part of me, however, wishes he would straighten up and fall for his co-worker and best-friend ‘Velcro’. Millie O’Connell imbues Velcro with a warmth, loyalty and irreverent wisdom that makes it one of the stand-out performances.
The show stealers are surely Clodagh and Dana, the stepsisters, though they do have a head start. Davis’ script is overflowing with brilliant one liners and these sisters have the lion’s share of them. Michaela Stern and Natalie Harman certainly make a meal of them too with unforgettably hilarious performances. But each character is given their moment to shine, while the ensemble highlights Adam Haigh’s dynamic choreography. Stiles and Drewe’s eclectic score is a catchy mix of ballads, duets and showstoppers, ranging from the achingly beautiful “They Don’t Make Glass Slippers” through to the fiery “I’m So Over Men”, which is reprised with a clever double-entendre re-interpretation of its title.
“Soho Cinders” is a musical with a heart full of passion and a belly full of laughs. As the nights draw in and the cold fronts approach the city, this show will certainly reignite the cinders and leave you with a feeling of warmth. The moral of the fairy-tale is in plain sight, but it doesn’t quench the enjoyment. This incredibly talented cast have as much fun as the audience. An audience who will still be humming the tunes way after midnight. Go! You’ll have a ball.
“a musical with a profound heart, and more than a touch of a morality tale”
Queen of the Mist is an ironic meditation on a whole range of recognisable American characters, including unscrupulous managers, small minded small town citizens, a radical Temperance campaigner — and even the assassin of an American president. In Michael John LaChiusa’s musical, they all get caught up in the story of one highly unusual sixty-three year old woman striving for immortality — and enough money to live out the end of her days. For protagonist Anna Edson Taylor, the problem is how to achieve this when life has you so beaten, the only route left to you is to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Based on a true story, we first meet Anna drifting from small upstate New York towns to small midwestern cities. All she meets is a hard nosed scepticism and a grasping at dollars — a wasteland for a woman who proclaims throughout Queen of the Mist that “There is a Greatness in Me.” Her longing for significance is dismissed by those who see Anna’s quest for consequence as that of an unscrupulous huckster and “Queen of fools.” There is more than a little truth to this, but in the words and music of LaChiusa, Anna’s search transcends the hardscrabble existence of a self proclaimed “quintessential hero”. We see instead, an intelligent woman who takes on the forces of nature “with science”, and wins. With such a barnstorming ending to the first half as Anna goes over the Niagara Falls, where can Queen of the Mist possibly go in the second?
Anna’s story falters in the second half, and this is hardly surprising. Anna’s life falters as well. As the first person to survive a trip over the Falls, we see her life turn into a series of lecture tours that all fail because of Anna’s inability to describe “what it was like”. There is conscious irony at work here, in giving Anna the posthumous fame she so desperately sought in life. Michael John LaChuisa once again creates a challenging work laden with memorable music and big ideas.
This revival of Queen of the Mist at the Charing Cross Theatre is noteworthy in several respects. With the audience seated both in front and behind the stage, set designer Tara Usher has produced a flexible space that teases with several delightful surprises as Anna’s story proceeds, amply supported by lighting designer Beth Gupwell. But it is director Dom O’Hanlon who deserves special mention for making the most of this challenging space. It is rare that one sees such confident, ingenious work. His direction highlights the talents of the cast, particularly Trudi Camilleri, playing Anna, and Will Arundell, who plays Anna’s first manager, Frank Russell. The musical direction of Connor Fogel is also confident, and with his band, supports the singing talents of all the cast to good effect.
Queen of the Mist is not a light hearted musical, but it is a musical with a profound heart, and more than a touch of a morality tale. For how different, really, is our contemporary world, with its own parade of hucksters and money grabbers? Anna Taylor Edson’s story is a perfect example of restless people in search of distinction, deserved or not. But Queen of the Mist is ultimately a musical about hope and resurrection, and inspirational in its own unique way.