Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds – The New Generation: Alive On Stage (2012) [Blu-ray]

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Having already covered Blu-ray releases of live stage performances of The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar I suppose it was inevitable that I’d get around to Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds sooner or later. So let’s not wait around, and make it sooner.

I should start off by being entirely honest with you: I’ve never been a huge fan of the 1970s concept album. Sorry. It’s not that I dislike it, just that I don’t share the unbridled love that so many people – especially of my age – seem to have for it. It seems to me rather majorly flawed despite decades of ongoing tinkering, improvements and upgrades by its original producer Jeff Wayne, and many of these flaws are only exacerbated by presenting it in a stage show format.

The original album was released in 1978 and the music still includes many distinctive touches of the pop-rock in vogue back in the day despite being melded with full orchestral accompaniment. In fact the whole album is a strange mix of musical styles, with the “Forever Autumn” romantic melody made famous by Justin Hayward completely different from the anthemic soft-rock “Thunder Child”, a more conventional stage musical interplay of “Parson Nathaniel/The Spirit of Man” and the pop-ish “Brave New World”. Read the rest of this entry »

Jesus Christ Superstar – Live Arena Tour (2012) [Blu-ray]

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Considering that I’ve already written reviews on the 25th anniversary concert performances of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, it was only a matter of time before I got around to penning some thoughts on the Blu-ray of the recent arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar that marked the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical’s 40th birthday.

It’s nice to finally have a visual recording of an actual performance of the show. The existing video releases have been of the 1973 Norman Jewison-directed motion picture (much criticised at the time but which has since become something of classic and the benchmark for how the show first appeared, thanks not least to it being the only video of the show available for 25 years) and a curious 2000 video release which is neither fish nor fowl, being the stage cast of the late-90s Broadway revival but filmed on a closed soundstage miming to pre-recorded singing; that means it features arguably the best vocal and acting performances, but also has an uneasy, mannered and somewhat airless artificial feel. Things are not helped by the music being turned down too low on the soundtrack and a Judas painted as an irretrievably black-hearted villain from the start.

By contrast, this latest DVD/Blu-ray release is firmly of a live recording: not of a theatre production but rather of the arena rock show that toured huge venues in 2012 after casting its title character via an ITV reality show. Both these aspects will have prejudiced many people against it, and it’s certainly true that filming a live performance in front of tens of thousands of people is bound to result in some compromises. The biggest problem this production faces is the stunt casting, since trying to sell out a massive event means that all the four major roles need to be played by big names with crowd-pulling appeal; apparently there’s a lot of ‘auto-tuning’ been done to bring some of the vocal performances up to scratch, but we’ll leave that aside and just treat the end result as-is. Read the rest of this entry »

Wagner: Die Walküre (Bayreuth 1992, Valencia 2008)

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So, Wagnerian opera is not exactly the pre-Christmas cheery post you were expecting, right? Or indeed opera of any description I’ll wager? But then, that’s exactly the sort of wacky eclecticism that you love about this blog. Erm – right?

I’m no opera fan usually, but I’ve been tantalised by Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle ever since I was a young boy when I caught glimpses of versions of it broadcast on the BBC over various holiday seasons. There was something about the subject matter (myths and Gods) and the resulting extraordinary stage designs and technical productions that was unlike anything else I’d ever seen. It made me want to watch more.

Sadly this was in the days when having more that one TV set in the house was a rarity, and an interminably long German opera would have been an impossibly tough sell to the rest of the household. Even so, I’ve always harboured a desire and intention to get around to watching it one day… Read the rest of this entry »

James Bond: Happy 50th, old man

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You have to hand it to EoN Productions, they know how to whip up the publicity for their upcoming James Bond film, getting the mainstream media falling over the “50th anniversary of the first James Bond film” as a way of priming the audience for the cinema début of Bond 23, aka Skyfall, later this month. Even satellite broadcaster Sky is joining in, launching its ‘Sky Movies 007’ channel today showing back-to-back Bond films for the whole of October.

Well, massive PR operation or no, it does seem that the 50th anniversary of the première of Dr No warrants a little mark of respect, so here’s my blog post offering in that direction – starting with a quick word on the new Bond film theme by Adele that was officially unveiled at 0:07am on Friday morning.

It’s good. It’s actually very good. Instantly likeable and memorable, it’s the first Bond theme in a long time that has the chance of being a hit record in its own right that will last the test of time far beyond the period of the film release.

The risk with bringing a big star like Adele in to do a Bond theme is that either the Bond fans won’t like the end result, or the star’s fans won’t. But “Skyfall” manages to be both a wonderful pure-Adele track while at the same time dripping in all the right epic trappings of a true Bond theme. That’s pretty impressive. To be honest, I think the song is as its best when it’s most “Adele-ian” and that some of the Bond motifs running through the background are just a little too heavy-handed, which may stop this from becoming seen as a standalone classic as it probably should. But then, this is the 50th anniversary film release and if there’s a time to remind people of the Bond heritage and wallow in a little gratuitous nostalgia then it is surely now.

Certainly I’ll be adding it to my iTunes collection. But then, I’ve even got Jack White and Alicia Keys’ theme song for A Quantum of Solace, so clearly I’ll buy any track that’s attached to a Bond film. Maybe that’s not the ringing endorsement it was intended to be after all…

Ian Fleming’s Moonraker (1955)

Last week I finally got around to reading Ian Fleming’s novel Moonraker, some 33 years after I intended to having seen the Roger Moore film of the same name. I won’t call the film an ‘adaptation’ of Fleming’s book, because even back as a kid in 1979 I knew that the producers had followed the pattern of the previous film in the series and moved Bond completely away from his literary roots. (The films were so different that they were the first to warrant their own movie novelisations by screenwriter Christopher Wood; they were two of my most-thumbed paperbacks back in the days before the films become available to rewatch on VHS, DVD or endless digital channel reruns.)

The reason why The Spy Who Loved Me went so far away from the novel is entirely down to Fleming himself, who didn’t like the story and so forbade any film version of it (although he allowed the title to be used.) In the case of Moonraker it’s more a case that the contents of the novel had simply not aged at all well over a quarter of a century and were by any objective analysis unsuitable for adaptation. Given that basis, how readable is the novel now?

The plot consists of three main strands: the first half of the book has Bond uncovering a card cheat as a favour to M. On paper this has a fair degree of tension, but a game of bridge is hardly going to be cinematic (although Martin Campbell managed an impressive transfer of a game of Texas hold ’em to the screen in the 2006 film of Casino Royale). The rest of the book features a story involving new missile technology based on German V2 rockets and obsolete by 1979, added to the threat of Nazis seeking revenge for their wartime defeat. That was a real fear when the book was written, less than ten years after the end of World War 2: but by 1979 such a Nazi vengeance notion would have been archaic to a modern audience more used to having the Germans as partners in the EEC.

So what to do? The film makers resorted to essentially repeating the story format from The Spy Who Loved Me, which in turn had used the basic template laid down by Roald Dahl for You Only Live Twice – just going even bigger. Most people regard the film of Moonraker as having gone too far and as a result be one of the weakest Bond cinematic instalments; in passing I have to say that I disagree and that it’s still one of my movie guilty pleasures.

Reading the novel, it’s interesting to see just how much of Fleming’s plot actually weaves itself into the film’s DNA despite the loss of almost all this plot detail. For one thing, the antagonist is still the immensely wealthy Hugo Drax, who is apparently philanthropically using his vast fortune to pull off advanced scientific projects for the good of a grateful nation. In the book, Drax is using his money to fund an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system for nuclear warheads for the UK government; in the film, he’s essentially producing a fleet of space shuttles that the US and UK governments can’t fund themselves. But in both cases, he has his own reasons for underwriting the work.

The plot in the book revolved around fanatical former Nazis seeking revenge on the UK: there are no Nazis in the film, but it does come down to a megalomaniac with designs of reseeding a cleansed planet with a race of hand-picked humans to produce a eugenically perfect super-race. Meanwhile, the Bond girl in both the book and film is a fellow undercover agent: in the film it’s American CIA operative Holly Goodhead, but in the book it’s British Special Branch agent Gala Brand. In both cases there’s initial suspicion and animosity between the two organisations and the agents themselves to overcome, but of course they do team up in the end (although Gala Brand never succumbs to Bond’s charms in the bedroom like Holly Goodhead does.)

One of Fleming’s trademarks in his books is to make Bond suffer: his 007 is no superhuman, but suffers pain and agony during his missions (although just short of any debilitating injuries that might stop him from completing the mission or returning for the next in the series.) Toward the climax of the book, he and Gala Brand narrowly escape being cooked by the rocket exhaust discharge as the missile takes off, a sequence picked up by the film makers during a space shuttle launch although there Bond escapes using another special agent gizmo rather than gritting through the pain.

All in all, it’s surprising how much of the book feeds into the film after all. At the same time, the book has a very different feel as a whole. For one thing, while the film jets from California to Venice, Rio de Janeiro to the Amazon and then into outer space, the book never leaves London and the Home Counties, with the climax taking place on the English coast above the white cliffs of Dover. For those of us with an image of 007 as the globe trotting international spy, this is all unexpectedly cosy and domestic.

What’s most surprising about Fleming’s book is that even 58 years after it was written it’s still as readable as it is. Sure, some of the details feel like they belong in the history books – especially the astonishingly quaint section of Bond racing Drax through the Kent country roads which are positively Dick Barton-esque. But it still zips along at a reasonable pace, delivers using a sparse prose style, and never outstays its welcome but is instead a quick, easy and effective read.

Since Fleming’s day there have been a glut of books that conform to that style: Alistair Maclean was an early exponent, then there was Clive Cussler, and now it would be Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels that are surely the best of the bunch and the modern day equivalent of the Bond series. But Fleming did it first, and caused quite a stir with his ‘sensationalist’ writing presentation and overtly brutal and sexual topics. While the Bond books wouldn’t stand out in today’s crowd (in fact they’d be a bit of a wallflower compared with most popular fiction) and the plot details really are as archaic as the filmmakers realised in 1979, Fleming’s farsightedness in creating this new muscular writing style means than at least it’s entirely possible to still read and enjoy them even well into the 21st century.

That’s no mean feat. Whether in print or on screen, it seems that James Bond still has it, and will be worth returning to for a good while yet to come.

Les Misérables in Concert – 25th Anniversary (2010) [Blu-ray]

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After enjoying the 25th anniversary production of The Phantom of the Opera a couple of months back, I was lured into wanting to watch the equivalent birthday celebrations of another long-running hit musical, Les Misérables. Unlike Phantom – which I’ve been a fan of since it opened – I’ve remained stubbornly resistant to the charms of Les Miz and never seen or listened to it, despite some obvious overlaps with Phantom (both set in 19th century Paris, adapted from works by French authors, both shows being produced by Cameron Macintosh, starting in London just a year and a day apart in 1985/6 and still running today.)

Those overlaps prove rather superficial and the two shows really are very different, starting with Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score and Herbert Kretzmer’s English translation of Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s lyrics. This is a far more raw and raucous musical, a world away from the precision-crafted polished melodies of Andrew Lloyd Webber, more akin to the sung-thru style of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd than to Phantom. Famously Les Miz was about the biggest hit show never to have spawned a hit single, but that changed when Susan Boyle sent jaws dropping to the floor with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent. That said, many of the key numbers in Les Miz felt familiar to me: either the show’s score is more widely covered than I’d realised, or it relies cleverly on well known authentic melodies and anthems of the place and period to give it a timeless feel that bestows a sense on these songs being old friends you simply hadn’t met before but take no more than a minute to become comfortable companions – which is a genuine high achievement.

Lionel Bart’s Oliver! is a particular self-confessed influence on the show, as is clear in the style of the ensemble songs for the destitute French underclass including “At the End of the Day”. It even has direct equivalents of Fagin (Thénardier) and the Artful Dodger (Gavroche). However, where Oliver! has an underlying sense of hope and gaiety to it, Les Miz is never far from the biting edge of abject poverty and angry despair that led to first night critics dubbing the whole venture “The Glums.” But just like the original Dickens books, Victor Hugo’s source novel is a huge, sprawling affair bursting with vibrant characters and storylines to the point where condensing it down into a three hour show is a feat in itself. Even so, much of the first act struggles with a stop-start episodic broken-up feel to it as we career through a range of situations, locations and characters who arrive in one scene and depart in the next. It’s all necessary backstory, but it’s still a relief when we get to 1830s Paris and a more conventional narrative asserts itself after what feels like a Cliffs Notes highlights package on fast-forward.

The linking thread is ex-convict Jean Valjean breaking parole and his flight from intractable policeman Inspector Javert, and the two men’s face-to-face confrontations are the dramatic highlights of the show. However Valjean is promptly missing from a lengthy section at the start which concentrates instead on the descent into depravity of factory girl Fantime, but her time in the spotlight is shortlived. There’s also the story of Valjean’s love for his adopted daughter, Cosette; how she falls in love with a young student called Marius; and Marius’ involvement with student revolutionaries leading to the 1832 Paris Uprising that dominates much of the end of Act 1 and most of Act 2. As a result some stories get squeezed rather too tightly in the crush – the Cosette/Marius romance is malnourished and doesn’t have anything like the emotional tug that a nominally secondary plot strand – Éponine’s doomed unrequited love for Marius going unnoticed – heartbreakingly manages alongside it. In the end the show tries valiantly to reconcile its two main themes of Valjean’s quest for personal redemption with the revolutionary call to arms to build a better world for all: it doesn’t entirely succeed but it’s a worthy attempt, and in its ambition and complexity it makes Phantom’s streamlined clean-and-simple plot seem rather threadbare by comparison.

This 25th anniversary production is similar in format to the one staged for Phantom a year later, but clearly Cameron Macintosh learned a lot about what did and didn’t work here. This Les Miz is a concert staging, meaning that while there’s some set dressing, props and costumes, the performers sing to a bank of microphones at the front of the stage and there’s consequently little scope for physical performances. For the most part this isn’t too much of a problem and the show is carried on the emotional intensity of the outstanding individual performances, but some key plot points (such as the fate of several characters) are lost without the proper staging. Not a problem for devoted fans of the musical who know it all backwards, though – or anyone with access to a plot synopsis online, in my case.

The performers are mainly drawn from Les Miz casts down the years, with some additional stars brought in for the occasion. No one will begrudge the renowned tenor Alfie Boe delivering a fine performance in the central role as Valjean, and US reality show finalist Samantha Barks is also rather excellent as young student Éponine. Perhaps the most obvious-seeming piece of “stunt casting” is the inclusion of Little Britain’s Matt Lucas as Thénardier, but he has a surprisingly good voice and is certainly accomplished at producing effective comedy grotesque characters on the stage, so it’s actually an excellent fit and works well: his first song “Master of the House” is a glorious show-stopper.

More troublesome is the casting of US teen heartthrob Nick Jonas as Marius. His voice is noticeably very thin and nasal compared with the accomplished stage performers around him, and he sounds just like what he is – a modern day pop star, which will be very jarring for Les Miz aficionados used to the booming tones of Michael Ball who created the role in the original London run. But this may be a deliberate creative choice by the production, to differentiate Marius from those around him, adding some variation to the vocal line-up and making him an appreciably younger and less confident character in keeping with the story. It’s noticeable that when Jonas comes to Marius’ ‘coming-of-age’ song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” – perhaps my favourite song of the whole show – he is assuming a much stronger, deeper voice to show his growing maturity.

It doesn’t help Jonas that he plays many of his early scenes against Enjolras, the charismatic leader of the student revolutionaries, and played here with such a magnetic presence that the performer threatens to steal the show outright from under everyone’s noses despite limited stage time. That was even before I recognised the voice and realised that it was none other than Ramin Karimloo, so superb in the 25th anniversary Phantom and who is currently on stage in the West End production of Les Miz – now in the lead role. Another member of the student rebels is played by Hadley Fraser, Raoul in the Phantom 25th show and currently also on stage in the West End playing Javert to Karimloo’s Valjean. This strange, small, porous world between the two musicals is underlined by the appearance post-show of the lauded original Valjean Colm Wilkinson and one of his most popular successors in the role, John Owen-Jones – both of whom are also in the Phantom 25th post-show reprising their other shared role as the Phantom himself.

As for the Blu-ray, it is a fine presentation – colourful and detailed for the most part although some shots requiring long-distance extreme close-ups (because of the sheer size of the O2 Arena in which it was held, stadium-style) appear flattened and soft as a result of the technical limitations, and the lighting is sometimes not optimal for filming. The soundtrack is nicely loud and rousing, with a good stereo feel to it and all the singing and instruments crisp and clear. Sadly the only extra is a brief 5 minute trailer/puff piece for the 25th anniversary performance with flashes of the history and international success of the show.

This disc isn’t quite up there with its Phantom sibling and the concert staging means it’s not as good a surrogate as seeing the show itself, but it is certainly good enough to convert me from my stubborn former resistance to heeding the rousing call to arms of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, and it made me a genuine fan of the production. It might be 26 years after first night, but better late than never – and who’s counting anyway? At least I’m on now board in plenty of time for the 50th anniversary celebrations!

The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall [Blu-ray]

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I’ve been an unabashed fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera ever since it opened – which is 25 years ago, as this silver anniversary celebration of the show staged at the Royal Albert Hall reminds us. I’ve seen it twice, got the book and the CD and even the DVD of the so-so 2004 feature film version, so you won’t get any critical re-appraisal of the show from me here. It is for me the best stage musical I’ve ever seen (tied perhaps with Jesus Christ Superstar and only a whisker ahead of West Side Story.)

Given the story’s history (right back to Gaston Leroux’s 1909 original novel, through multiple adaptations including Lon Chaney’s seminal 1925 silent classic, Claude Rain’s flawed but enjoyable 1943 version through to Hammer’s very 1960s version with Herbert Lom) it seems unnecessary to give a long rundown of the plot (disfigured composer in the bowels of the Paris Opera House seduces a young chorus girl.) And if you haven’t seen or heard the musical … Well, stop reading now, this is no place for such philistines! (I jest. A bit.)

For the 25th anniversary, composer Lord Lloyd Webber and producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh decided to take the notoriously hard-to-stage show and put it on at the Royal Albert Hall – which of course is a symphony hall not a full theatre. It was a basically insane idea, and like all insane ideas in showbusiness it can – and in this case does – result in the most triumphant success. Some changes are forced, of course: there’s no way that the chandelier can be ‘dropped’ at the end of Act 1, so there’s some spectacular ‘nice try’ but still underwhelming pyrotechnics instead. Some of the ‘magical’ disappearances-into-thin-air have to be fudged over as well, as the Royal Albert Hall stage has none of the custom-built trap doors that the show’s regular London home at Her Majesty’s Theatre has.

But by and large (with the sole exception of the chandelier, perhaps) none of these matter and are more than made up for by the inventiveness shown by the production team working around it while remaining true to the majestic original designs of the late Maria Björnson. The key scene everyone remembers with the boat on a mist-filled lake lit with candles is beautifully realised. One scene that could have been a let down – the masquerade which opens Act 2 that features a stunning non-replicable sweeping staircase in the stage show – is instead re-imagined for the constrained Royal Albert Hall backstage and too-narrow access points combined with a cast three times the regular stage show’s, and makes a genuine triumph that almost surpasses the original.

The principle way it’s all achieved is by using huge electronic LCD display screens in place of flown-in physical scenery and then using the stage show’s regular costumes and props (although alas Hannibal’s hollowed-out life-size elephant was apparently too big to make the trip over from the West End for its big moment.) The screens are a masterstroke, allowing the show to retain its look and feel even in this temporary home and even adding one true coup de théâtre of its own, when we switch to a backstage point-of-view for Christine’s curtain call, and the backdrop shows … the Royal Albert Hall audience itself, applauding live, actually improving upon the original staging.

While I’d possibly have preferred the chance to have a copy of the regular stage performance rather than this one-off ‘special’, in fact the Royal Albert Hall is used brilliantly throughout, looks wonderful and becomes a real player in the performance – not to mention that there is a full orchestra and a genuine full size pipe organ to use. The score has never sounded better as a result: to my knowledge, it’s the first time that a complete performance of the show has ever been released on either DVD or CD, as even the iconic original cast recording CD from 1986 cuts out some of the dialogue and abridges some of the faux classical pieces along the way. For that reason alone this Blu-ray/DVD is a must-buy for true Phantom fans.

Despite being a completely live performance, I couldn’t see a single flaw in how it ran. What you get from a filmed stage performance over a movie version is to relive how incredibly clever some of the staging of the show truly is and always has been, allowing for on-stage costume changes and audacious scene transitions – and all of that is here to savour. But this filmed production also gets right in close to the action, and it’s shocking to see how good the acting performances are close-up even as they have to play simultaneously to the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall.

Ramin Karimloo’s performance as the Phantom (both acting and vocal) is just staggering, while Sierra Boggess’s Christine makes the difficult singing of her role look effortless while achieving perfection – their final scenes are breathtaking and heartbreaking, and the close-ups reveal genuine tears of emotion from both leads. Even Hadley Fraser’s Raoul is a far greater, feistier presence here than the basically useless third wheel the character often appeared in some early performances at the start of the show’s run in the 1980s; and there’s lovely work from Wendy Ferguson as La Carlotta, comedic of course but with unexpectedly interesting and deep nuances as well.

Basically everyone is terrific: with the cream of 25 years of Phantom casts from around the world to choose from the performances were always going to be top-notch, and they truly are. For long-time fans it’s interesting to see how much has changed in some of the roles, with the original portrayals sounding rather shallow and underdeveloped compared with the latest stars, who have 25 years of successive superb casts to study and learn from, enabling added depth to the performances surely unparalleled in modern musical theatre. Although it’s true, I might be a little biased here.

As for the Blu-Ray: It’s a gorgeous transfer, the costumes in particular looking absolutely stunning in high definition. The production manages to balance the need for genuine stage make-up with not looking too over-baked for screen, the colours jump off the screen and the blacks are rich while retaining detail and solidity. Only in the close-ups with the LCD backdrops does the presentation even vaguely let us down, as the high-res sharpening on the oversize electronic ‘pixels’ becomes a distraction – but that’s not the disc’s fault, or indeed the production’s. It is what it was on the night – and what it is, is wonderful.

In terms of extras there’s just one 20 minute behind the scenes feature cheaply shot on non-professional equipement, but it’s nice enough and somehow more real and enjoyable than the usual professional puff-pieces you get. It certainly shows just how insane the idea to stage this at the Royal Albert Hall really was, and the frenzied work that went into making it happen. The real ‘extra’ – and the only one that fans probably really want from this – is that the post-show final half hour at the Royal Albert Hall is retained in full, wherein Andrew Lloyd Webber steps out onto the stage to introduce some of the original stars and creative team (as well as the team behind the Royal Albert Hall staging). He then unveils to a delighted audience the original Christine Daaé, his former wife Sarah Brightman, to reprise the title song to the show accompanied by five of the men who have played the title role over the years: Peter Jöback, John Owen-Jones, Anthony Warlow and Colm Wilkinson, along with the night’s lead Karimloo.

It’s the brief moments when the original and latest leads line up and briefly interact – Michael Crawford with Ramin Karimloo, Sarah Brightman with Sierra Boggess – that really bring home the extraordinary history and success of this show and will truly delight fans and mean not a dry eye in the house for devotees. Appropriately, though, the final curtain call is left to the two stars of the evening, as Karimloo quite literally sweeps Boggess off her feet and the two exit stage centre to a thunderous standing ovation.

Available on Blu-ray and on DVD. The production was also shown on Channel 5 on Easter Monday 2012.