2016: Top Ten Musicals – Off West End
No matter what else there may be to be concerned about in theatrical terms in 2016, the musical theatre scene in London off-West End is not one of them. Vibrant, challenging, adventurous and totally engaging – all the things the West End is not – that has been the hallmark in the off-West End venues this year.
From Grey Gardens to She Loves Me, 2016 has offered many first looks at musicals as well as some innovative and insightful revivals. To my great chagrin, despite having tickets for two separate performances, I was prevented by circumstances from seeing Grey Gardens but I don’t know anyone who did not count it as a triumph.
This list is a personal one, and features only productions I saw myself, but as I compiled it I was surprised at just how many terrific productions 2016 had provided. Honourable mentions go to Road Show, I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road and Burnt Part Boys – three very different musicals, all presented with style and verve, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable, despite minuscule budgets and small performing spaces. Each production used intimacy as a part of the production to really great effect.
This has been a harder list than any other this year, the standard being so uniformly high. Off West End theatres provided more riches in this field than West End theatres in 2016.
But here goes:
10. She Loves Me
She Loves Me is a gorgeous chocolate box musical, sweet and full of treats. It is an ideal musical for the intimate Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre and Matthew White’s production was superbly old-fashioned as well as cheeky and delightful. Beautifully cast, and with magnificent musical support from Catherine Jays and her band, She Loves Me was as lush and evocative as the perfumes sold by Mr. Maraczek’s quirky, lovable staff. Sheer delight.
Lazarus was an utterly bizarre, utterly absorbing, utterly confounding theatrical experience. It celebrated the music, genius and individuality of David Bowie in an particularly Ivo van Hove kind of way. If you expected to be lost in a mediation on life, death and spilt milk, you were completely rewarded. Frustrating and remarkable, Lazarus was a unique theatrical experience.
Allegro is the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical created between Carousel and South Pacific, when the gifted duo were in top form and used to major success. Despite a marvellous – and quite pretty – score, Allegro has never been considered a success and few people have seen it or even heard its songs. Thom Southerland’s production of Allegro made you see clearly the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit that should have been.
7. The Toxic Avenger The Musical
If ever there was a small scale production of a musical which deserved to have a long and rewarding run in a non-West End venue, it was the extraordinarily exuberant production of The Toxic Avenger The Musical at the often-punches-above-its-weight Southwark Playhouse. Directed with skill and flair by Benji Sperring and featuring an exemplary, first-rate cast, The Toxic Avenger The Musical, was that exceptional production – two hours of inventive entertainment, far more worth one’s time and money than productions of Funny Girl, Kinky Boots or, even, In The Heights playing elsewhere in London at the time.
Boats were big in 2015 and not just because of hysteria about refugees. First, Show Boat sailed into London, a mesmerising triumph, and then, Titanic, Peter Stone and Maury Yeston’s glorious, sweeping epic, awash with great tunes and terrific performances, captained expertly by Thom Southerland, docked at the Charing Cross Theatre – a five star sensation.
5. Floyd Collins
Floyd Collins will never be a blockbuster success offering ‘caviar to the general’, but for the quality of the music and the seriousness of the themes it addresses it is hard to match. It is an object lesson of how deep musical theatre can dig when its resources are fully deployed in the right directions. The musical deserves five stars on its merits, but twice over for the strength of the production, which makes all the correct interpretative decisions, finding tragedy and comedy in all the expected – and some unexpected – places.
4. Andy Capp
Andy Capp is a more honest depiction of working class life than either Billy Elliot or The Full Monty. It shows a comically exaggerated version of real life for many people – even today. And by shining a light on that world, it makes it that much harder for that world to continue unchanged and unchecked. Jake Smith’s ebullient, stylish and smart revival of Andy Capp was the first professional production of the musical in more than three decades. Seeing what Smith, choreographer Chris Cuming and musical director Tim Shaw achieved, with limited resources and less space, in the very intimate theatrical shoe-box that is the Finborough Theatre, demonstrated the power of focused commitment, excellent source material, innovative staging, adept arrangements, and casting harmonious with the demands of the material.
3. The Last Five Years
The key ingredients to a great musical are, in no particular order: a good story, engaging music, truthful performances, a gimmick (as Gypsy reminds us) and heart, lots and lots of heart. The Last Five Years is a great musical and the Jason Robert Brown helmed production of his own musical proved it – in spades. Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey really shone, the production was smooth and smart, and everything worked. The kind of sustained joy that all musicals can and should aspire to create.
2. The Adding Machine : The Musical
Impressionist musicals are few and far between, but The Adding Machine: The Musical is certainly one of the best. It doesn’t feature dance routines, jazz hands or particularly hummable tunes, but it throbs with musical power and uniquely tells a tale about the inhumanity of modern existence. It’s savagely funny too, and this production, featuring a committed and commanding central performance and some superb ensemble singing, was stylish and hugely entertaining: a musical treat full of terrific surprises.
At a time when hate crime and racism is on the rise in post-Brexit Britain, Ragtime could not be more pertinent. The ravishing score starkly contrasts against the bitter blows suffered by some of the characters and superbly underpins the heroic and romantic aspects of the narrative. Thom Southerland’s revival was glorious in many ways, not the least because it reminded one, forcibly, of the talent available in London which is often shamefully overlooked by West End producers blindly groping for “stars”.