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Mark Shenton’s top 10 new UK musicals in 2016

Ibinabo Jack, Amber Riley and Liisi LaFontaine in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moogenburg.jpg
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Its the time of year when critics have already started filing their end-of-year reports, though there are a couple of weeks (and at least half a dozen major openings) still to go that include major events such as Ivo van Hove directing Ruth Wilson as Hedda Gabler, Gemma Arterton as Saint Joan at the Donmar Warehouse, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams in Mary Stuart at the Almeida Theatre and the British premiere of the 1981 Broadway musical Dreamgirls.

The latter opens officially on December 14, but I am including it in this list anyway (I’ve been waiting 35 years for it to come to London, and couldn’t wait for press night). These, then, are my top 10 new (or new to the UK) musicals of 2016…

1. Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

No new musical of 2016 burst on to the stage with such confidence and daring as Tim Minchin and Danny Rubin’s adaptation of Rubin’s 1993 film Groundhog Day, in Matthew Warchus’ production at the Old Vic, that is now Broadway-bound to open at the August Wilson Theatre in April. As I said in my review, “This is a show about deja vu that, paradoxically, is like no other musical you’ve ever seen… It’s an absolute musical triumph that I will want to see again and again. Unlike Phil Connors, I’d happily have the night reprise itself on an endless loop.”

2. Flowers for Mrs Harris

British composer Richard Taylor had a busy spring: his 2011 musical The Go-Between made it to the West End, while his latest show, Flowers for Mrs Harris, premiered at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, where I described it as “a poignant, winning portrait of friendship and of trying to fulfil seemingly unreachable dreams”. It starred the wonderful Clare Burt, who deservedly won the UK Theatre award for her performance in the title role.

3. Dreamgirls

We’ve had to wait 35 years to see the West End stage premiere of this 1981 Broadway musical, but it has been worth the wait. Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s musical, a fictionalised version of the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, is a propulsive joy. Krieger channels the sounds of Motown but creates his own distinctive musical soundtrack that is one of the best Broadway musical scores of the last 40 years. Krieger also had a second UK stage premiere with the 1997 musical Side Show at Southwark Playhouse, that I said “casts a darkly insinuating and deeply compelling spell”.

4. Grey Gardens

Sheila Hancock in Grey Gardens at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Sheila Hancock in Grey Gardens at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton

When this 2006 Off-Broadway musical, based on a 1975 documentary, received its UK premiere back in January, I wrote: “2016 has barely started, yet I am already wondering if we’ll see a stranger story told in musical form all year, or one with such a darkly insinuating appeal.” Now the year is nearly over, I can confidently say I was right. It was also stunningly played by Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell as a desperately co-dependent mother and daughter, who gave two of the finest performances I’ve seen in musicals all year.

5. The Adding Machine

We saw an autumn rush of intriguing Off-Broadway musical imports, including The Burnt Part Boys, Vanities, Murder Ballad and Lazarus (see below), but Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith’s The Adding Machine proved to be “both compellingly strange and also weirdly wonderful”.

6. A Pacifists Guide to the War on Cancer

After London Road, the National Theatre continued to push the boat out with this new musical based on people’s personal stories about cancer. Near the end, it turns into a cathartic group experience that involves the entire audience. From my review: “It’s a universal story – and the show is a tender and healing shared experience.”

7. School of Rock

The first of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals to be premiered on Broadway ahead of the West End since Jesus Christ Superstar back in 1971 (which itself received one of the year’s best revivals at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, School of Rock proved to be “his freshest, funniest show since the youthful exuberance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cats and Starlight Express”.

8. Lazarus

Michael C Hall in Lazarus. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
Michael C Hall in Lazarus. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

David Bowie made his last public appearance at the New York first night of Lazarus a year ago; the show became a prescient memorial when he died soon afterwards. Now it has arrived in London. From my review: “This being Bowie, the show is more complex, layered and riveting than Thriller Live (a happy, sometimes tacky concert hagiography of Jackson). Instead, the work, in which a man contemplates shaking off his life on earth, is a kind of eerie premonition, a settling of Bowie’s own existential reckoning.”

9. The Buskers Opera

Dougal Irvine’s evocative London update of The Beggar’s Opera preceded the National’s revival of Brecht’s own take on The Threepenny Opera. At the Park Theatre, The Buskers Opera was “transplanted to a 2012 London set against the backdrop of the Olympics in which Macheath is a fomenter of dissent – and casual killer of assorted homeless people – in a somewhat muddled protest movement”. It starred an electrifying George Maguire as Macheath, who came across “a bit like a seedy Russell Brand, all cocky charisma, edgily belting out Irvine’s original guitar-based rock riffs and protest songs”.

10. Motown the Musical

Theatreland is awash with jukebox shows, but this one does precisely what it says on the tin, providing an endless hit parade of songs from the legendary record label. “Motown the Musical may just be the ultimate jukebox musical,” I noted in my review. “Short of putting a physical jukebox on the stage and playing a succession of the records once minted by the famous Detroit-based record label that emerged in the 1950s and made a succession of black solo artists and singing groups into global superstars, musicals don’t get more more like a parade of wall-to-wall hits than this.”

Next week: Mark Shenton’s top 10 musical revivals of 2016

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