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Ian Ritchie (Scotland)

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Follow That Girl
Follow That Girl
Price: £11.81

3.0 out of 5 stars Is it worth the chase?, 9 April 2012
This review is from: Follow That Girl (Audio CD)
It seems a shame to define the musical 'Follow That Girl' for what it isn't, but since it's now more than fifty years since this London cast brought it to life I imagine most people drawn to this CD will be drawn from a familiarity with other works from writers Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds. The timeless 'Salad Days', of course, is the show most will be aware of - about a newly-graduated couple who are under pressure to get on in life but end up responsible for a piano that causes all around to dance. Others will also have succumbed to the charms of 'Free As Air' - about a girl (newly rich through an inheritance) whose attempts to evade the Press lead her to a remote island. The main thing, for me, that sets `Follow That Girl' apart from these successes is the paper-thin plot. In fact, there are two plots - neither of which amount to much. The main plot, set in Victorian times, concerns a heroine who flees her family home as a result of her father's insistence that she immediately choose between two suitors who have been wooing her - neither of whom she likes. Also ensnared by the chase are an artist and his wife - whose painting of their lost son is stolen by the suitors (who plan to use it in an advertisement for baby soap). And then there's the policeman who, despite never having met the heroine, falls in love with her as soon as sees her. Framing this plot is the tale of its struggling writer. Essentially, his girlfriend's father disapproves of him. The two plots interact - but not to great effect - and both, inevitably, end happily. [Note that I've given the plot more space in my review than the highly-informative booklet does - which, instead, concerns itself with giving context on the state of the British musical at the time the show was made - 1960 - and also provides an accurate critique of the show.]

Without a strong plot, your response to this CD will probably depend on how interested you are in simply hearing more songs by Slade and Reynolds. A few of these are in Victorian style. On the whole, many of the songs are so unspecific in subject matter as to barely belong to the show anyway - even the strident title number fails to move things along.

My ear was taken with two of the quirky pieces though - the insidious 'Life Must Go On' in which the craven suitors, who believe their love has jumped off a bridge to her certain death (when in fact she floated off holding a parasol!), come rather hastily yet entertainingly to the conclusion that they can eschew the majority of the trappings of mourning; and then there's a revue number in the framing plot which offers a scathing (yet somewhat exaggerated) attack on the cons of modern-day public transport - 'Taken for a Ride'. On the more serious side there is at least one shining jewel in the score: the soaring 'Solitary Stranger' in which the artist's wife expresses concern for our suicidal heroine who had been poised to jump from the parapet of the bridge until she intervened. 'Tra La La' is worth an honorary mention too - despite its origins (as an introductory number made up on the spot by the writer and his girlfriend. Could they have come up with a more infuriating idea?) its unashamed generic-ness appeals.

While I wasn't much taken by 'Follow That Girl' there's also a pleasing lush orchestral selection from it on the disc (which shows how good 'Doh, Ray, Me' is without the lyrics). But the main saving grace is the inclusion of a fifteen-minute EP of songs from another Slade and Reynolds show: 'Hooray for Daisy!' Crammed into that running time are no less than 12 tracks as recorded by the Bristol Old Vic cast, including the compelling Annette `One Foot in the Grave' Crosbie. She has a particularly fine number to sing in `I Feel as if I'd Never Been Away'. The plot seems to concern her return to the village of her childhood and the staging of a pantomime. It's clear that 'Hooray for Daisy!' has a much stronger story than 'Follow That Girl' so perhaps the CD of the full London production (Hooray For Daisy! (with bonus tracks)) - alas, without Crosbie - might be a better one to spend money on.

T-Bag Series Two - T-Bag Strikes Again [DVD]
T-Bag Series Two - T-Bag Strikes Again [DVD]
Dvd ~ Elizabeth Estensen
Price: £11.77

4.0 out of 5 stars Numerical nostalgia, 22 Jun 2011
Young Thomas returns to his granddad's deserted toy shop only for his game of make-believe, played out with props from a dressing-up box, to be interrupted when an invisible force drags a pop-up book of stories down to him and its pages open. Within the pop-up representation of a glass plant-house appears a familiar witch - he calls her T-Bag while she insists on being addressed as `your majes-T'. He betrayed her once but now she's regained her powers and soon has him under her spell as `T-Shirt' (her own personal tea-maker). Help is at hand, though, as Thomas' previous ally, Debbie, soon appears on the scene and sets out to retrieve the silver numbers that T-Bag took from the book's town clock and scattered throughout the stories. Debbie believes that T-Bag removed the numbers in order to cling onto her magic powers, so their recovery will lead to the witch's defeat.

So begins this ten-part pantomime-esque Children's ITV series that was first broadcast in 1986. Each twenty-minute episode focuses on a different tale from the book and these are usually based on well-known children's stories albeit with a twist - for example, the genie who emerges from a lamp has been sleeping so long that his magic is pretty rusty so he's of limited help. The list of characters also includes a Prince Charming, a court jester and pirates.

T-Bag must have been a part of a lot of people's childhoods - in all there were 9 series made which featured a character of that name (this is the second series) so it's great to get the chance to find out whether the show deserves to be so fondly-remembered or not.

What took me back more than anything on the DVD was hearing the music cues and, in particular, the jolly closing theme tune. Another memorable recurring image is that of an enraged T-Bag opening her mouth to roar while we hear a rumble of thunder and see objects on screen outlined in white - presumably to resemble a lightning strike. The character also vents her frustration with frequent cake-based curses, such as `teacakes and crumpets!'. There are occasional cliff-hanger endings to episodes and even the occasional song.

Visually, the show stands up well - it helps that the action takes place within a pop-up book, meaning that, although some of the sets seem to amount to little more than painted boards, this is perfectly in keeping with the plot. The special effects in the closing episode more than make up for the opener's image of Debbie entering the world of the book as a spinning doll.

Acting-wise, Elizabeth Estensen inhabits the grown-up spoilt brat that is T-Bag expertly and entertainingly. She really cranks up the threat to Debbie as the series progresses. John Hasler is endearing as the sometimes bad, sometimes good servant/slave T-Shirt - a wonderfully varied character. Jennie Stallwood does well as the capable Debbie, who outsmarts T-Bag at almost every turn, but is somewhat saddled with having to be the driving force for the story - Debbie seems, at times, tiresomely obsessed with retrieving the numbers while T-Bag and T-Shirt are allowed their diversions. All three stars are brought together for commentaries on episodes 1, 2, 9 and 10 - in which we find out much about John and Jennie's attitude to the show at the time and how its following affected them. (A word of warning: stop listening to episode 1's commentary at the end, when the action moves to the forest glade, if you want to avoid having episode 2's plot spoiled for you.) The series also features several actors still familiar today thanks to their comedy roles, such as Roy Barraclough, Frank Middlemass, Jack Haig and Brian Murphy.

So, does this series end up as a string of repetitive stages in a quest or is there enough novelty and interest here to sustain its ten-episode run? The first episode was interesting enough but wrong-footed me into thinking that the viewer would be challenged each week to spot the silver number before the characters did - this is not an aspect that gets repeated. I found that episodes 2 & 3, and 5 & 6, taken as pairs, shared a little too much in common with each other to be that enthralling the second time around. That said, the episodes are never less than involving. I particularly enjoyed parts 4 and 7 and with episode 7 comes the advantage that T-Bag's spell over T-Shirt is beginning to wear off - leading to greater character development for those last four instalments. I'd be surprised if, after watching episode 10 you don't share Debbie's momentary feeling of bereavement upon realising that the story is over.

Overall, then, I feel the series deserves to be fondly-remembered and I particularly recommend it to those of you who can still recall it from its first airing - no matter how dim your memories.

[The DVD also features a photo gallery from the series and a separate gallery of sketches (mainly of the sets) from show designer John Plant.]

Dance a Little Closer - Original Broadway Cast
Dance a Little Closer - Original Broadway Cast
Price: £46.13

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Too Clingy?, 6 Feb 2009
Dance a Little Closer is one of the last musicals that master lyricist and scriptwriter Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Camelot, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) worked on. Despite the production running for just one night back in 1983, several of the songs from the show have had a life beyond it (in particular: There's Always One You Can't Forget, Another Life and the title song). As a result, this soundtrack has quite a high curiosity factor, not least of all because the songs are composed by Charles Strouse (of Annie and Bye, Bye, Birdie fame).

The action takes place in the Austrian Alps in a hotel full of wealthy guests. The global political situation is such that a third world war may break out at any time. There to entertain the patrons is Harry (played by Len Cariou) who performs a cabaret act. Singing about the past disasters of his love life, he seems resigned to his fate and thus doesn't feel the need to take the world's plight too seriously. However, who should he see on the arm of one of the rich and powerful guests but the exact double of a woman from his past, Cindy, who, despite being in love with him, wanted the luxuries and security that his income couldn't provide. Alas, this woman, Cynthia (played by Liz Robertson), denies having met Harry before. As war grows ever nearer though, what will ultimately prove more of a consolation: status and financial security or true love?

On the whole, I don't think this is a classic score. Admittedly, more than a handful of the songs impressed me and Lerner does occasionally manage an exquisite lyric (`He Always Comes Home to Me', where Cynthia explains how she's sure to keep hold of Winkler, her old wealthy lover, really stands out) but there are an equal number of off-putting songs. In fact, the first on the disc, `It Never Would Have Worked' (which sees Harry taking us through the low points of his love life in one of the cabaret songs) strains credibility immediately by asking us to believe that the wealthy elite would spare time to listen to this when the world could be about to end. And, later on, the stilted disco beat of the interminable `I Don't Know' - in which, believe it or not, an aged clergyman dithers about whether he should perform a marriage ceremony for two gay men - quickly loses its initial novelty factor.

It's also difficult to tell whether the flaws in the performances that the two leads put in are down to deliberate characterisation or not. Cariou's voice frequently has a note of strain in it (which could be a deliberate indication that Harry's on the verge of a breakdown) while Robertson, at times, seems to take Cynthia's show of detachment too far when her songs could have done with more emotional colour. I have heard both artists sing better than this (you can even hear Liz Robertson singing a more-spirited version of `Another Life' on another album - An Evening With Alan J. Lerner). I'm happy to say that the booklet that accompanies this disc includes a summary of the plot. This rather highlights the frequency with which Cynthia changes her allegiances though.

Anyway, for me, based on the performances here, there are two standout/unique songs:

`A Woman Who Thinks I'm Wonderful' sees Winkler, Cynthia's self-important elderly beau, grandly expound on what he finds attractive in a woman: blind devotion to him. It is funny.

And `I Never Want to See You Again' sees Harry at the lowest point in his relationship with Cynthia, disgusted with her and quite determined to rid her from his mind.

There are several good happy songs too (the gay couple, very much in love, wonder `Why Can't the World Go and Leave Us Alone?'; and the cabaret act picks up rather when Harry, along with female backing singers the Delights, shares his joy that `I Got a New Girl'). However, it's telling that the songs that survived the show all speak of desperation (the title song is a hymn to the need for company, `Another Life' tells of Cindy's determination to escape poverty while the recurring `There's Always One You Can't Forget', with its wintry touches, finds Harry yearning for the love he let slip through his fingers years ago). Perhaps, in the end, the flaw of the show is that its characters are just too clingy to appeal to too wide an audience.

Musicality of Strouse
Musicality of Strouse
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: £10.96

3.0 out of 5 stars Dance a little closer..., 22 Oct 2005
This review is from: Musicality of Strouse (Audio CD)
Charles Strouse, in case you didn't know, is the composer behind such hit musicals as Annie ("The sun'll come up... tomorrow") and Bye Bye Birdie ("Put on a happy face"). While both those shows dealt with 'kids' (and are represented here with less famous songs from within their scores) he's been responsible for many more shows with a more adult focus - Golden Boy (written as a vehicle for Sammy Davis Jr.) with its grim tale of professional boxing springs to mind. So many that each of the twelve songs featured here comes from a different show. Most of the songs are new recordings and three have never even been released before.

One reason I love songs written for musicals is that they can tackle any subject which would normally be deemed 'uncommercial' in pop music, can be so direct, so specific to what a character is feeling/having to deal with that they can provide a fully fleshed-out story. For example, the CD provides us with 'Once Upon a Time' (two people look back longingly on their earlier romance - one that was not to last) and 'This Gentle Land/This Noble Land' (Prince Albert, pining for his homeland, contrasts greatly with his love, Queen Victoria, as she affirms and urges him to accept the supposed superiority of his new home, England!).

Strouse is clearly adept at nailing locations and times with his music as well as emotions. 'Is There Anything Better Than Dancing?' takes us to the land of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies while the clear delicate music of China emphasizes the meaning of 'A Singer Must be Free', sung here by Sarah Brightman in the guise of a nightingale, wonderfully.

All in all it's an odd compilation for its insistence on using less familiar music and for its avoidance of the more optimistic songs that brought Strouse the level of fame he has. It serves well for what must be its main audience though: devotees of musicals out to sample songs from shows before committing to buying the full albums. And, while you may not be familiar with them yourself, the songs 'Blame it on the Summer Night', 'Once Upon a Time' and 'Dance a Little Closer' are all well-regarded gems - the latter hasn't been available for years so it's a bonus that this CD finally lets me own Liz Robertson's original warm tentative plea.

I can't pretend that this disc has a status on a par with the soaring 'My Star' (the lyric tells us that it's always been there in the night sky whenever Ron Raines has sought consolation) as the CD is rather too keen on going for the less well-known. Never mind because the songs are well realised and I know I'll keep coming back to this Musicality release in the future.

The Baker's Wife
The Baker's Wife
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: £35.98

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Baker's Wife, 13 Aug 2003
This review is from: The Baker's Wife (Audio CD)
France, 1935: The villagers of Concorde have been without bread for some weeks now following the death of their baker. As this musical opens his replacement arrives: Aimable, a recently married middle-aged man with a suspiciously young and pretty wife, Geneviève. Aimable is a solicitous and romantic man but is blind to the fact that Geneviève married him to try and put the memory of a failed love affair well and truly behind her. Alas, the marriage has not been enough and before long, and despite her intention to stay true to the baker, she gives in to the advances of the local Marquis's lustful manservant, Dominic. The selfish villagers delight in spreading gossip of the baker's misfortune... until the bread runs out and they realise they won't be getting any more unless they can solve the baker's problems...
Back in 1989, when lyricist/composer Stephen Schwartz reworked his musical for the London stage, this show was billed as 'A Comedy Musical'. Having read the preceding plot synopsis you'd be forgiven for wondering if this was an appropriate description. Well, it's half-right. In actual fact, the songs are split fairly evenly between the comedic and the serious. Perhaps a better and more welcome adjective would be 'life-affirming'.
The plot is fairly linear, and only so much as forks when Geneviève runs off with Dominic. Add to this the fact that the story is mainly centred on the three leads and you have a very focussed piece. Although I believe this musical to be a masterpiece, at times progress seems slow and the running time [83 minute 39 seconds] is rather long. The upside is that this approach allows the show to deal thoroughly with all the emotional twists and turns experienced. Also, virtually the entire plot is carried within the songs, meaning that the lack of a summary of the story in the enclosed booklet is not too disappointing. [The booklet contains little other than photographs - the lyrics are not included.]
Memorable songs, most of which have a French flavour, include: "Bread" - the villagers' eulogy to their favourite food; "Gifts of Love" in which Geneviève sadly [but neatly] reveals to us why she is unhappy with her life and marriage; "Meadowlark" - Geneviève recalls a childhood fairytale which ends her indecision over running off with Dominic; "Endless Delights" has all the ups and downs of a merry-go-round as Geneviève finds herself unable to work out whether the glib Dominic really loves her; "Luckiest Man in the World / Feminine Companionship" - a cheery tune in which the villagers try and fail to convince Aimable that he's lucky to be shot of his wife; "Romance" - the female villagers finally sympathise with Geneviève, realising that she has run off in search of romance - something they, in turns longingly and raucously, realise is gone from their own marriages; and who could forget the song which recurs throughout and bookends the show: "Chanson" - a song akin to a lullaby about how, at any time, a brighter future may be just around the corner.
The cast for this studio recording of the original 1989 London cast are headed by Sharon Lee Hill and Alun Armstrong, both of whom are excellent as are all the other performers.

Listen to the Wind
Listen to the Wind
Price: £13.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Listen to the Wind, 8 Jan 2003
This review is from: Listen to the Wind (Audio CD)
It's almost Christmas when, alas, Emma is joined at her grandmother's house by her two boisterous cousins. Things don't get any better when a solicitor arrives to reveal that Granny's now bankrupt. Before long a pair of pirates turn up, kidnap the children and take Emma's music box too. Fortunately the box is magical and the kids sing along to its tune in the hope that the Wind People will come to their aid... and that's before they're menaced by an evil thunder cloud and meet a mermaid-turned-witch.
I bought this stage musical soundtrack as a bit of a curiosity - I knew absolutely nothing about it bar the fact that Vivian Ellis wrote the words and music (he's famed for writing the music for Bless the Bride and much of that for Mr Cinders too [including the tune for 'Spread a Little Happiness']). It turns out that this is a children's musical - I suppose you could have guessed that from the plot details. Songs provide virtually no plot progression. A fairly detailed synopsis of the story is given, which is nice as you could not begin to interpolate it from the songs, but, saying that, it's not all that important and, unsurprisingly, everything ends happily.
This is the type of thing I would expect from a pantomime (and a dated one at that - while this is a recording of the 1996 revivial cast the show was first performed in 1954) so perhaps it would be better to steer clear of it unless you've actually seen the show or heard some of its songs before. It's worth a listen if you're a fan of Vivian Ellis' music but I find it hard to believe that he honestly preferred it to all the other musicals he'd worked on. The music itself is O.K. but the only instrument you hear for the most part is a lone piano - it's something of a relief when the children finally open the music box and sing the title song.
Thankfully the real world does occasionally break through, for example when Emma's governess (Paula Wilcox) advises against entering her profession in "Who'd be Governed by a Governess?". It was only after I'd listened to the CD three times that I could remember any of the songs bar those which are sung more than once but I do now find the melodies quite charming. One other saving grace is that the score contains several jaunty sing-along numbers - chief among them being the witch's song "I Used to Rock, I Used to Roll" in which she tells of the marvellous fun she had when she was a mermaid (Paula Wilcox again).
The performers seem to put their all into the show but stripped of the impact they made on the stage and with only one piano for support the CD was always going to be fighting a losing battle to make the fantasy elements convince. Still, it was pleasant, it didn't give me a headache and I've caught myself singing the lively "I Don't Like Plain Bread and Butter for My Tea" several times now.
Total running time: 50 minutes 52 seconds. The CD pamphlet also includes a few photos (sadly none of the Wind People or Black Thunder Cloud), and sections on the show's history and its composer.

Price: £13.64

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enchanting, 16 Nov 2002
This review is from: Valmouth (Audio CD)
The stage musical Valmouth is set in an English spa town of the same name - its restorative waters attract the rich, the afflicted and a fair amount of associated scandal too. Unfolding over the course of the holiday season the main plot concerns a naive young woman, Niri-Esther, who has secretly married the [absent] heir to the local manor house. She waits for his return with her high-spirited aunt, Mrs Yaj (who sets up a local massage parlour) and, when he eventually comes home from the Navy, she finds she must fit in with his mother's ideas on religion. Then there's the ageing Lady Parvula (played by Fenella Fielding - camp as ever) who yearns for one last fling - preferably with the local shepherd boy.
If you're looking for the scandal then perhaps this score is the wrong place to look - although it is present in quite a few of the numbers (notably Fenella Fielding's 'Only a Passing Phase' - a jaunty number in which she recalls a vast catalogue of servants and working men she has had brief dalliances with over the years) the impact of any behaviour perceived to be immoral is softened by the fact that the characters are so well-defined that their indulgements seem understandable. The score is a joy to listen to - from its springtime awakening to the fading echoes of its glory in autumn, not forgetting all the up-beat and poignant numbers we hear along the way. The plot is fairly small-scale and is essentially an emotional journey - hence the songs generally add colour to individual characters rather than, say, provide us with some ensemble number where everyone at the ball sings its praise. As a result the songs bring you very close to the characters and this intimacy feels like a real privilege. The songs stand alone but do not contain all the necessary plot details to fully understand the story but thankfully the insert gives a brief but adequate synopsis.
Highlights of the score for me include: 'All the Girls were Pretty' (the old ladies reminisce about their eventful youth), 'What Then Can Make Him Come So Slow?' (dear innocent Niri-Esther yearns for her husband to sail into view), 'My Talking Day' (an exuberant number in which a nun, normally under a vow of silence, sings in jubilation that the one day on which she is allowed to speak has come round again) and 'I Will Miss You' (Mrs Yaj and her friend bid each other a touching farewell).
A lot of the individuals featured are rather eccentric so character-identification is at times unlikely - hence the four stars rather than five.
Total running time: 66 minutes, 56 seconds

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