Our pick of the Top 10 London musicals in 2015
After we gave our list of the Top 10 plays to hit London's West End in 2015, this week our attention has turned to the list of musicals that have been the most memorable over the past twelve months. I think it's fair to say that 2015 hasn't been a classic year for brand new British musicals, with the commercial hits of the year coming direct from Broadway. There's certainly been a few turkeys along the way, but we'll remain positive and only share our favourite shows...
Many of the best musicals of the year have come from the off-West End and fringe, where high quality revivals and brand new productions are allowed to thrive. Some of my favourite nights at the theatre have this year been spent in the smallest of auditoriums, proving that size certainly isn't everything when it comes to performance spaces...
The biggest hit of the year has to be this glorious revival of one of the best musicals ever written that landed in the West End via Chichester, where it found a new home at the Savoy Theatre. Imelda Staunton proved to be an absolute power house in the lead role of Rose Hovick, the Titan-esque stage mother who pushes her daughters so far to succeed that she lets it take over her life. Featuring the greatest Overture ever written (performed by a glorious orchestra), with hits such as "Let Me Entertain You", "Some People" and "Roses' Turn", this was my most visited production of the year, and by far the most enjoyable.
2015 may also be remembered as the year of the Sweeney. At one point London was fortunate enough to be the home to two productions of Stephen Sondheim's musical thriller running concurrently - in spectacularly different settings. Whilst the ENO's London Coliseum housed a stunning semi-staged concert production, complete with full orchestra and stars such as Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson, a site specific version of the gruesome tuner ran at a purpose built Pie and Mash Shop on Shaftesbury Avenue. Never has Sondheim's work stood up to greater scrutiny as performed for an intimate audience in the setting of Mrs Lovett's Pie Shop, contrasting brilliantly with the style and opulence of the ENO's production five minutes round the corner. Here's hoping this joint success inspires a trend, and we get more dual-Sondheim performances in 2016.
Perhaps not strictly a musical, this revue / song cycle was one of the most innovative uses of the jukebox genre I'd ever stage. Featuring back to back Bacharach songs (you're welcome to use this as your next title...) the show opened under the name 'What's It All About?', before transferring to the West End under the more commercially sensible name 'Close To You'. Truly original, immersive and inspirational, this production was a joy from start to finish and was a breath of fresh air to the genre and theatre as a whole. Make sure you catch it in its new home at the Criterion Theatre until 14 Feb 2016.
It's not every day London gets a revival of a lost Jerry Herman musical, and so this production of 'The Grand Tour' was more than welcome and kick-started the year in a wonderful fashion. Directed by Thom Southerland, this shoestring production was presented on the confines of the tiny Finborough stage, and achieved fantastic moments of staging, design and musicianship. Whilst the plot was slightly ridiculous in parts and the reduction in cast and orchestra held it back slightly, it was truly special to hear the Herman score delivered by an extremely talented gang of performers.
Michael John LaChiusa's musicals are rarely performed in London, and this gem of a show was presented at the Jermyn Street Theatre in a polished and expertly delivered production that featured a very committed cast and exceptional band. A difficult commercial sell, it was a daring choice for Aria Entertainment, and one that I hope paid off in the long run. Stylishly presented and directed, it was a difficult piece that thrilled in its execution, and was a complete stand out from the past twelve months.
The biggest Broadway hit to open in the West End in the first half of the year was this Tony nominated jukebox featuring stand out hits from the catalogue of Carole King, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Using the tried and tested Broadway formula, the show arrived in cookie-cutter form direct from New York, making a star of Katie Brayburn in the lead role, ably supported by Lorna Want and Ian McIntosh. Whilst the format was certainly not original, by the end the music and the performances won me over, and I left the theatre feeling significantly happier than when you went in.
The forgiving surroundings of the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre meant that this deeply flawed musical was given a new lease of life, thanks in the main to some outstanding choreography by Alistair David and fiercely committed delivery by a highly skilled ensemble. Laura Pitt-Pulford was a delightful Milly, and somehow made you forget the core issues with the plot and the glossed-over blatant sexism. The barn dance scene we all remember from the film was successfully recreated, and with a glass in your hand and moon in the sky, you couldn't really ask for much more of a summer's evening.
The legend that is Carrie the Musical finally opened in London in a brand new production at the Southwark Playhouse. After notoriously becoming the biggest Broadway flop of all time, Show Queens and Stephen King fans rejoiced at this bloody new production that starred Evelyn Hoskins and Kim Criswell as the fearsome mother-daughter duo. Okay, the production was a little rough around the edges, and you couldn't always hear the lyrics due to a dodgy sound mix, but the show delighted new audiences and was certainly the off-West End event of the year.
Another successfully modest production that struck a chord with me this year was the London premiere of James Valcq and Fred Alley's folksy musical based on the film of the same name which ran at the Union Theatre. Stripped of almost any production values, the show relied heavily on the talents of the cast and the atmosphere of the venue to successfully tell this slightly disturbing thriller set in small-town America. A stand out performance from Belinda Wollaston managed to forgive the production for many of its sins, and it was certainly a fantastic opportunity to see a rare gem of a show.
"Everybody say yeah" - the 2013 Tony Award-winning musical returned to its spiritual homeland as it opened in the West End to solid reviews and excellent audience reactions. Jerry Mitchell's energetic production has certainly brought some much needed zest to the West End, and the show is in fine form now it's back on its home turf and the heinous accents that render the American cast album practically unlistenable are now successfully realised. Matt Henry was a breakout star in the role of Lola, with West End hero Killian Donnelly once again proving his metal, and we're confident this show will be keeping the Strand lit up for a good few years to come.