Review: Birds of Paradise
Image: Drayton Arms Theatre
Lawrence Wood - Ashley Knight
Andy Wood - Ryan Taylor
Homer - James Kenneth Haughan
Julia - Lottie Johnson
Hope - Elizabeth Chadwick
Dave - Stuart Scott
Marjorie - Victoria Waddington
Stella - Stephanie Lyse
When a group of eccentric amateur actors attempt to stage an absurd new musical version of Chekhov's The Seagull, they each end up learning more than just their lines.
As rehearsals go on, art starts to imitate life as they all learn valuable lessons in love and acceptance.
A joyful and witty comedy told through heartfelt songs and uplifting music, this UK premiere of Birds of Paradise will charm and delight fans of contemporary musical theatre.
An early work of Winnie Holzman (writer of the book of Wicked), it showcases the comedic talents of one of the genre's most influential authors.
Following the successes of their previous five-star shows at The Drayton Arms with The Baker's Wife and Lucky Stiff, MKEC Productions continue their mission to bring high-quality stagings of lesser-known musicals to the London Fringe.
If you belong to the genus of humans who might be classified as ‘musicalis agnosticus', that may be because the idea of a character in a story suddenly bursting into song for little or no apparent reason, stretches credulity.
It's that aspect of musicals which does switch some people off the genre - though there are plenty more ready and willing to suspend their disbelief as the enormous and ever-rising popularity of musicals can attest.
But if you're looking for some reality in why characters sing during a play, why not have them ... rehearse a musical!
And that is exactly the approach which David Evans and Winnie Holtzman's musical, Birds of Paradise, takes in order to shoehorn the songs into the story.
It revolves around a group of amateur singers known as The Harbour Island Players who are rehearsing a musical written by one of their number, Dave (Stuart Scott).
At the start, they're awaiting the arrival of a professional actor Lawrence Wood (Ashley Knight) who was raised in the area, and the group want his opinion on their endeavours.
But when the star arrives, he is presented with a song from a different musical written by another member of the group.
Still with me?
Well, though this sounds a touch on the confusing side it actually works out pretty-well.
Anyway, Mr Wood thinks this musical - based on Chekhov's The Seagull - is a winner (even though its plot is completely bizarre) and, being down-on-his-luck in the professional acting department, he decides to direct it.
That raises potential for conflict between Wood and the musical's creator, Homer (James Kenneth Haughan) both in terms of creative interpretation of the fictional work and 'real-life' romance.
First performed back in 1987, Winnie Holtzman wrote the musical with David Evans when she was still in university, and that is reflected in the piece.
The story feels somewhat naive and a little thin in the early stages and there's surprisingly little humour in spite of the enormous possibilities given the variety of characters (all well-defined here) and the setting.
The introduction of some penguins (don't ask!) at the start of the second half, raises the game a little in terms of humour, but it's largely short-lived.
Even so, it's hard not to be drawn-in by the characters and their predicaments, especially in the post-interval period.
But the real strength and appeal of this seldom-produced work lies in David Evans's music.
There's a definite ring of familiarity in many of the tunes, but there are also unexpected twists and turns in the melodies which are augmented by the different voice types in the ensemble.
And this is most certainly a highly talented cast who can all sing ... and they sing exceptionally well.
There are ample opportunities for almost every one of them to shine individually, and none of them flunk the chances presented.
Where they really excel, though, is when they are all singing together, with the combined voices producing powerful and evocative emotional hits.
That's largely due to David Evans's intricate and rather meaty score, with tunes that amply pass the hummability test.
And there's abundant evidence in this capable production of fine, meticulously-timed musical direction from Oli Rew, strengthened with commendably astute direction from Marc Kelly.
Though the story and dialogue are probably the weak-links in this rarely produced musical, the intriguingly rich songs, delivered by a vocally impressive and assured cast, are more than enough to warrant a visit to this production.
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