“the songs are so samey that it takes away any sort of specificity or distinction from the show’s voice”
Song cycles often have a sense of purity about them. Unrestrained by trivialities such as plot or character arcs, they’re a platform for composers, lyricists, and performers to put their talents centre stage with a diverse range of songs framed around a loose connective theme. It’s a compelling and proven format, and can launch careers if done well – see Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, for example. In Pieces, however, doesn’t quite manage to hit the mark.
Assembled from songs by Joey Contreras and directed by Louis Rayneau, In Pieces is a musical film from Future Spotlight Productions, focusing on the pieces that make up the love lives of eight unconnected New Yorkers (and their dance ensemble). The songs explore typical romantic moments such as crushes, first kisses, and wistful run-ins with ex-partners using the pop-heavy anthemic musical theatre style that Pasek & Paul have dominated new musicals with through the likes of Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman. Unfortunately, In Pieces suffers from all of Contreras’ songs sounding like this.
With every song being so similar in style, length, and subject matter, it causes the show to tonally flatline and brings the pace down to a crawl. Contreras’ music is certainly easy on the ear, but there are only so many ballads on wanting to be loved you can hear in a row. There are some standouts, however: Jordan Luke Gage brings some earthy angst with This is Not Me, Beccy Lane delivers poignant storytelling with Another New York Love Story, and Hiba Elchikhe and Luke Street ratchet up the tempo with I Could Fall. The opening and closing songs, which feature the whole cast, give the opportunity for some absolutely gorgeous harmonies and make you wish there were more group numbers outside of those bookends. All the cast are on top form vocally, particularly Kyle Birch, who constantly impresses without ever coming off as showy.
There’s also some great choreography on offer from Rachel Sargent, especially in numbers such as First Sign of Forever where it’s utilised for some really sweet storytelling. Other times, the use of the dance ensemble feels underthought, or neglected by the cinematography. The filming took place in Kidzania, a child-scaled indoor city in London, presumably to try to evoke New York, but it unfortunately makes the set look somewhat tacky and amateurish.
It’s clear that In Pieces was made with the best intentions: everyone commits 100% to the material, and it’s great to see the unabashed queer representation and celebration on display. However, the songs are so samey that it takes away any sort of specificity or distinction from the show’s voice, and as a result In Pieces struggles to engage.
“The energy and commitment of the cast is undeniable, as is their pure joy in performing”
Once On This Island is set in the French Antilles, and tells the story of a young peasant girl, Ti Moune, who falls in love with a Frenchman, Daniel, who lives in the grand hotel on the other side of the island. Ti Moune’s love plays out as part of a battle between the gods Papa Ge (the demon of death) and Erzule (the goddess of love) as to who is the strongest, and although Ti Moune ends up cast aside by her lover, in favour of a French noble woman, the gods look kindly on her loyalty to Daniel, and she is reincarnated as a tree, which eventually grows, cracks the hotel gates and allows future generations to live together in harmony. The story is part Romeo and Juliet, part Little Mermaid, and the score is rich in calypso and Caribbean rhythms.
The musical is one of The British Theatre Academy’s summer shows, and, with its nineteen strong cast, Once On This Island is a perfect choice to showcase the talents of its alumni. Lee Proud (director) runs a tight ship, and the production is pacy and professional, with every performer, from the leads to the ensemble, giving their all 100% of the time, which is fantastic to see. The energy and commitment of the cast is undeniable, as is their pure joy in performing. Inevitably, there are weaker links here, but the strength of the collective is such that it doesn’t matter. Similarly, some of the more hackneyed choreography and design choices are glossed over by the brio of the production as a whole.
That said, the high-octane energy could become relentless, and both the production and certain individual performances would have benefitted from a bit more light and shade. This wasn’t helped by the sound, which was deafening. The Southwark Playhouse is a relatively small space, and, although it is now done as a matter of course, this reviewer again questioned the necessity of miking up the performers. The audience is perfectly capable of hearing the singers at such close quarters, and miked-up singing exaggerates an already-present musical theatre stridency in many of the voices. Clarity and vocal strength, however, were on point throughout.
Chrissie Bhima, as Ti Moune, demonstrated terrific tone and control, and made the most of her belters, especially her opening number ‘Waiting for Life’, but the voice of the evening was that of Aviva Tulley, who was masterful throughout and truly came into her own with her showstopper ‘The Human Heart’. Already a subtle, expressive, powerful performer, she is bound to have an exciting future. Credit too to Marie-Anna Caufour for her touching performance as Euralie, Ti Moune’s adopted mother, and to Jonathan Chen for his rousing portrayal of the Earth Mother Asaka.
Once On This Island is not a particularly arresting musical, lyrically, musically or in terms of its story, but it is lots of fun. And this particular production feels like a celebration, full of youthful energy and love. And that really ain’t a bad thing to be a part of on a summer evening.