Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Review: Josh Groban Straight to You tour at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo

I have a friend, whose reaction every time I mentioned I was going to see Josh Groban was to burst into hysterical laughter.

Despite finding him amusing on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, she couldn't understand why I was excited, or why anyone below the age of 40 would want to see him. In fact, for her, me going to see Groban was worse than me going to see Cliff Richard or even Steps (don't all rush for reunion tour tickets now, will you?).

So, my darling friend, this review is dedicated to you and all the other disbelievers out there.

The Groban experience started before the audience even got inside the venue last night. Approaching the Apollo the queue snaked outside the building, and walking the length of it to try and find the back led people past a host of fans - some hard-core "Grobanites", some not. There were couples of all ages, groups of friends (aged anywhere from in their late teens to their late, well, I'm too polite to say), families and more.

Ignoring the touts selling unofficial merchandise (if I'm going to buy overpriced crap I'm going to at least get the good stuff), everyone queued calmly, setting the tone for the evening - civilised.

Because that's what the whole event was, very civilised. In the surroundings of the Apollo (much smaller than I expected), those who didn't get seats stood calmly at the sides, and everyone stopped talking when the band came out to play their introductory instrumental version of Straight to You, the song from Groban's latest album, Illuminations, that the tour is named after.

Still, being civilised is no barrier to screaming, and there was plenty of that throughout the night - when Groban came out, whenever he spoke, whenever he finished a song, and of course when he came down from the stage to grab a few lucky audience members to join him for a glass of wine back on stage.

The wine and audience members on stage is a nod to a smaller set of concerts Groban did earlier this year. During those (the Before We Begin tour) Groban mentioned he liked the more intimate feel of interacting with his audience, and elements of last night's concert were copied straight from there.

Having seen various clips of Groban picking fans, pulling them up on stage, sitting them down and then telling them he was going to sing a song about cheating (Broken Vow), I felt a weird sense of de ja vu, and it wasn't as fresh as I might have liked it. Still, watching Groban being felt up on an stage by a fan and taking it in his stride by cracking jokes was fun.

The Straight to You tour is a great mix of Groban songs old and new, and some are reworked brilliantly to give them a new edge (You Are Loved) while others are just so gorgeous they don't need reworking (Oceano).

Of course, being as this is a tour for the latest album, there was plenty on the playlist from Illuminations. Disappointingly, he didn't sing my favourite tunes (Love Only Knows and Straight to You), but the rest of the show was so good I guess I can forgive him.

Groban's band are world-class musicians, and it would almost be unfair to pick out just one person for praise. Almost. Special mention must go to violinist Christian Hebel, who did a brilliant job throughout, but was particularly fantastic on Mi Mancherai, which is essentially a duet between Groban and a violin (go YouTube it if you think that descriptions sounds strange).

Special mention must also go to the Grobanites. Everyone in the room last night was a Groban fan, but the Grobanites are a special type of fan, slightly more vocal, slightly crazier, but in the absolute best of ways. They were the ones waving glowsticks in the air throughout, and dancing their way through some of the faster numbers. You go!

For the fans Groban is as appealing for his personality and sense of humour (aforementioned NMTB appearances etc) as he is for his music, so it was great to see him answering a few audience questions and giving out little tidbits of information about his songs. I wouldn't have minded hearing him talk a bit more though, although that would probably have involved either cutting back the number of songs (NO!) or taking the show over two hours. Considering Groban was on stage for close to 120 minutes already, I think he was probably exhausted enough by the end.

Of course, even after he left the stage, he did come back for a couple of encores. Getting the audience to join in with You Raise Me Up, he reminded everyone just how superior his version is to Westlife's (as if we needed reminded). He pulled out a brilliant cover version of Neil Diamond's Play Me, playing the piano for that number as well.

In America the Straight to You tour has played bigger venues than the Apollo, but the smaller venue as an advantage for the audience last night when it came to Groban building a connection with his fans, a connection that no one wanted to break.

So it was perfect that the show's very last number was a cover of Charlie Chaplin's Smile, a beautifully melancholy song that summed up the fact that no one in the room (Groban included) quite wanted the evening to end, but they we would all continue to smile, even though our hearts were aching.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Concert review: Idina Menzel at The Royal Albert Hall

Is it that the grand surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall deserve nothing but the very best performers?

Or is it that stunning music deserves surroundings as amazing as the Royal Albert Hall?

Whichever way round it is, everyone got the best last night when Broadway and West End superstar Idina Menzel brought her symphony concert to the historic London venue.
Menzel has been introduced to a new breed of fan with her appearances on Glee as Shelby - Rachel's biological mother and the former coach of rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline. 

But while many more people may know her now, Glee is hardly the pinnacle of her career, which involves Tony nominations and wins, and the chance to originate one of the most famous roles in musical theatre - Elphaba the green witch in Wicked.

So, of course, Menzel sang numbers from the hit musical last night. Despite not being covered in green paint - she was wearing a stunning strapless off-white ballgown with a black ribbon belt and no shoes - her brilliant voice combined with her stage presence and acting chops made it seem as though you were watching Elphaba.

Menzel's ability to embody a character in a song was shown in a rendition of Love for Sale by Cole Porter. 

The number was preceded by a story, as were most of the songs she performed last night.

Love for Sale's story had Menzel revealing she had a crush on a teacher at university, so when he told the class to pick any Cole Porter song, she thought she'd kill two birds with one song and use Love for Sale, complete with seductive looks and a costume consisting of lingerie-like items, and seduce said teacher and complete the assignment. Unfortunately for the young Menzel, she was stopped in her rendition and her teacher told her love for sale was not a seductive song, but a desperate one about a woman who is forced to turn to selling her body for money. Oops. And if that wasn't embarrassing enough, Menzel also discovered later in life that particular teacher was gay.

The humorous anecdote was a contrast to Menzel's performance of the song. She became the desperate woman for the few minutes she sang, uncertain, shy, facing up to her demons. And, in a brilliant arrangement, she also segued seamlessly into Roxanne by The Police midway through the tune before finishing Cole Porter's song.

For me, the highlight of the evening came near the end, with another song from Wicked. This time, though, Menzel simply played herself. Dedicating For Good to the crowd, Menzel shouted to the back of the hall that she would not be using her microphone, and to tell her if they couldn't hear her. They needn't have worried, her powerful vocals filled the hushed Royal Albert Hall, no technology needed. And it was one of the most emotional parts of the night, as Menzel sang straight to the fans who had been clapping and cheering all evening (guilty as charged).

Another spectacular moment also involved the audience, and was again an emotional, quiet performance. Menzel told of the death of the creator of RENT, who passed away on the day the cast had its dress rehearsal.

In tribute to the lessons she learnt from him and her time on the show, she sang No Day But Today, getting the crowd to sing the title line back to her towards the end, each time in hushed tones.

Sweet moments came when Menzel discussed her husband - Taye Diggs, who she met when she was in RENT - and their son Walker, followed by performances of silly songs the pair have made up for Walker ("my husband gets annoyed that my songs don't showcase his strong baritone, I get annoyed because his don't showcase my 13 octave range"). 

Funny moments came during a story about performing for Barbra Streisand (she ignored Menzel and Diggs as they sat at her dinner table, then asked if Menzel had sung for her as she'd forgotten her glasses, then abruptly left). And for the Glee fans Menzel poked fun at herself as she sang a stripped down version of Lady Gaga's Poker Face.

Menzel was accompanied throughout her show by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, masterfully conducted by legendary Broadway composer Marvin Hamlisch, one of just a handful of people to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony (an EGOT). He had a few funny stories of his own, during the very first short act which featured just him and the orchestra.

With a full orchestra behind her much of the night was loud, rousing and fun.
But it was the quiet, emotional, virtually solo numbers that truly showcased Menzel's talent, and which will stay with me for the longest.

Glee: Asian F review

Asian F was an episode about expectations - those you have others, that others have of you, that you have of yourself.

It's a heavy topic, and this episode of Glee had a heavier feel than the previous two in this series. There was still drama (goodness, was there drama), but the ridiculously over-the-top storylines and feel of the season openers was replaced with something heavier, darker, and altogether sadder. 

This is the episode fans of Glee as a whole have been waiting for - secondary characters we love get to come to the fore, properly. 

Mike Chang got a storyline (!), and a good one at that. Finally, finally, we got to see Harry Shum Jnr do something other than just dance. Sure, he's an amazing dancer, but this week he got to sing AND act. And he pulled it off. His internal conflict between fulfilling the expectations his father has for him and fulfilling his own dreams - simply another kind of expectation - were quietly played out. He didn't need the histrionics often displayed by Rachel or the overt schemes played out by Quinn/Santana/Sue (delete as appropriate) to show something matters. He just did it quietly and through actions, not necessarily words. And the scene with his mum? I inconveniently got something in my eye.

The only complaint is that Mike's storyline should have been spread out across more episodes. Although if that were the case Glee's writers would probably have introduced it in one episode and then forgotten about it for the next ten, so maybe doing it in one was a good idea.

At the opposite end to Mike - doing what he wants to do because he loves it and for no other reason - was Mercedes, forgetting she's singing because she loves it and doing it because she wants to prove, and disprove, the expectations about her.

We've seen the Mercedes-as-a-diva storyline before, and it does get a little tedious, even in this episode. But this time, the writers took it one step further and Mercedes actually did something about it. By quitting glee and actively pitting herself against her old club, she thinks she's shown she can take on the world. I don't know if it was intentional (I hope it was), but what I actually saw was a lost teenager, letting not being as skinny or pretty or favoured as someone else get her down, and making a silly, snap decision out of anger and grief and bitterness. I'd like to see Glee develop this storyline properly, to see Mercedes work out she's worth something and find her way back to her friends. Most of all, by properly I mean not in the next week.

The other person central to the storyline with Mercedes was Rachel, and this episode did feel like we were getting back to the old Glee, where Rachel was the centre of the universe. Well, it would have done, except for the part where the writers seemed to be parodying their early almost-worship of Rachel in Mr Schuester, and the character's realisation that those she loves (Finn, Kurt) may not love her enough to forgive her ugly behaviours, like sneakily running for school president.

One of the sweetest moments during this episode came courtesy of Blaine and Kurt (as usual) and their awkwardness over touching one another in a place where Kurt has received so much hostility. Which is why his campaign for class president has turned from being something he's doing to get into university to being something he feels ca actually make a difference. And why he's right to be annoyed by Rachel.

Rachel's campaign is all about her, and is thoroughly boring and I hope it will be a disaster, and Brittany's is super fun and I hope she'll stay in it for the long run, but in the end Kurt should win, because it's THE RIGHT THING.

This episode also brought the Schue/Emma (Wemma?) relationship back to the forefront. And again, it was all about expectations, and this time, Will having too meant Emma's recovery from her OCD took ten steps back. Will you never learn not to interfere Will?

The music:
Beyonce, show tunes, big numbers, dance numbers, Coldplay - this episode had a song (or two) for everyone.

Brittany did Run the World better than Beyonce, although the song still has way too much going on and is really overrated.

Mercedes, as usual, knocked it out of the park on her two (one and a half?) ballads and on her number from Dreamgirls.

Rachel was Rachel, what else can I say?

I'm still a little annoyed about Coldplay. They didn't see the potential of the programme when it first started and turned it down, but now that it's a hit they've suddenly been gracious enough to let Glee use their music? Pah!

My favourite this week, though, was Mike Chang doing Cool from West Side Story. Sure, he wasn't vocally the best, but the overall performance was moving. And seeing the football players dance wasn't as awkward as it should have been.

What Glee did well this week:  
Special mention this episode should go to Coach Bieste, who is the new Sue Sylvester. "What?" I hear you cry. No, I know she's not mean and hating everyone, but she is getting some of the funniest lines. And delivering some of them while eating a gigantic mixing bowl full of pasta. Genius.

Next week:
Weird moments between Puck and Shelby (NO!), Burt gets into the political race (YES!) and the glee clubs sing songs by Christina Aguilera and Katy Perry (maybe).

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Review: The Playboy of the Western World at The Old Vic

I confess, the reason I went to see The Playboy of the Western World at The Old Vic can be summed up in two words - Robert Sheehan.

I'm a big fan of Misfits, which I simultaneously think is really underrated but would also hate to see go so mainstream it lost its charm.

Sheehan's character - Nathan - in the Channel 4 programme is rude, crude, has bad habits and questionable personal hygiene, and has one goal in life - to have sex.

But for all that, there's something about Nathan you can't help but like. And a big part of that is Sheehan's wonderful acting.

Photo: Manuel Harlan
Which leads me back to the beginning, and wanting to see him live on stage.

I wasn't disappointed, Sheehan puts in a solid performance as Christy Mahon (left) - the protagonist of The Playboy of the Western World - particularly considering it's his professional stage debut.

He is charming, funny, likeable and unlikeable in turns. And his charm onstage is enough to make up for any difficulties he has with the language of J M Synge's play.

The story centres on Christy, who drifts into a village on the coast of County Mayo on a dark autumn evening. He brings with him a tale of killing his own father, one that gets more exaggerated with every retelling, and which you are never sure is completely true. 

The Playboy of the Western World is, among other things, a play about the power of language, and Synge reflected this theme in his use of words.

An audience not paying attention would have a hard time following the action - spread over three acts covering a night and the following day.

But an audience paying attention won't mind that ten words are used where two would have sufficed, and that five of those ten might require most people to consult a dictionary.

Photo: Manuel Harlan
In addition to the words used, Synge created a lyrical rhythm with his sentences, a rhythm that Sheehan and co-star Ruth Negga (left), currently on television in Shirley and who plays the female lead Pegeen in this play, don't always have.

They do succeed at times, particularly during an emotional scene with just the two of them on stage towards the end, but overall there’s a slight stutter to the proceedings.

Whether that's a lack of confidence, or whether that's because Synge's language is so far removed from the way people speak is not known, but, with practice, the two are sure to get better.

A solid supporting cast backs up Sheehan and Negga, and particular praise goes to Niamh Cusack as Widow Quin (right), who steals almost every scene she is in.

Photo: Manuel Harlan
Cusack's experience and talent shine through, as she has little difficulty in getting to grasps with Synge's wordiness, and the character’s brashness and sometimes crude phrasing hides a kindness and a grief caused by the loss of her children.

When The Playboy of the Western World premiered in Dublin in 1907, it led to protests inside and outside the theatre. Despite some hiccups, The Old Vic has no need to worry about a similar reaction - the audience may have been noisy at the end of the show, but it was only because the applause was so loud.

The Playboy of the Western World is on at The Old Vic until November 26. For tickets visit the website here.


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