Lauren Turner: Play On – Broadway Records

Rating: 2 out of 5.

For near-on over a decade, Texan vocalist Lauren Turner has been a crowd favourite across the Cabaret haunts of New York City. Featuring five of Turner’s memorable song choices from her childhood and cabaret career, Play On is a demonstration of which tunes led her down the path to the woman she is today. With a portion of proceeds going to charities benefiting doctors fighting the pandemic, Play On aims to showcase Turner as a performer and looking towards the next decade.

Immediately, there lies a particular issue with Play On, and while a couple of numbers change enough to offer Turner’s unique spin, I Have Nothing feels like an audition number – an exceeding well-performed one, but this isn’t Turner’s The Bodyguard. Iconic, it’s difficult to detach from Whitney Houston’s original as well as the context of the song in the musical, and Turner doesn’t bring enough to remove these from the equation. Though she has exceptional control, the emotion doesn’t come across. Not a good start for the album, but thankfully things take a turn.

Tracks two and three, Michael Jackson’s I’ll Be There and a belter of a classic from Sheryl Crow with If It Makes You Happy offer insight into Turner’s style. There’s a sense of self in the direction taken with these numbers, with decent harmonising with the instrumentals. Turner matches Crow’s ability to hold notes and reaches clear highs without allowing a break or having to build to the final tones – quite skilfully allowing for seamless routines. It’s a start, but there’s the suspicion there’s something more for Turner to offer – and then…

What at first seemed an out of place number, stepping away from the rock and power ballads, a gorgeous rendition of Fire and Rain, the emotional James Taylor classic, effortlessly communicates a sense of who Turner is. There’s an immediate difference, not only vocally, but in the direction and composition of the track – allowing for Michael Isaacs’s piano work to strikeout. Harmonising with the pianist, without detracting, Turner puts such intensity into a softer, yet still empowering cover of the song. It builds, echoing Taylor’s original sentiment with the number, without ruining the memory of his intention. The build-up at the end tops it all off with small scratches, vinyl-record etches we all have fond memories of resulting in a stand-out number for a compact album.

Closing the album, Don Henley’s The Heart of the Matter is a let-down following Fire and Rain. It can’t match the emotional output of the previous track, even if it outweighs it in vocal capability. It’s an evident demonstration of Turner’s ability with ballads and adapting her range to the song, benefiting from Daniel Muniz on guitar and backing from Tara Martinez. Similarly to the album opener, the inclusion isn’t as clear to the listener, this feels like it was chosen and structured not from choice, but as a way to wrap-up the album. This doesn’t feel like a finale, it doesn’t belt with the weight it should do to leave a lasting impression.

Unquestionably personal in moments, Play On feels like a starting point, a direction of personal choice for Turner as she reflects on the songs which morphed her into the powerhouse beltress that she is today. A short album, containing a heft of voice and talent, Play On is a pleasant listen for a sombre evening, best accompanied with a glass of your tipple and a quiet room – just expect to find yourself waiting around for an encore which won’t arrive.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/cd-review-lauren-turner-play-on/

Lauren Turner: Play On is available from Broadway Records now

The Season – The Royal & Derngate

Direction by Tim Jackson

Book & Music and Lyrics by Kit Buchan and Jim Barne

Ah, to be in New York for Christmas. To see the lights, soak in the smells of the chestnuts and hot-dog vendors as the flutters of snowfall scatter the heads and coats of the wealthy. Ice-skating in central park, dinner at the Ritz and horse-drawn rides across the cold cobbles, basking in the orange glow of streetlamps. What an utter crock. Kit Buchan’s new musical The Season takes our fetishism of the holiday season, not so far as satirising the genre, but inventively tying a classical Christmas narrative with sarcastic silver tongues, modern themes and honest, blunt views on the obsessive nature we have with the ‘perfect’ Chrsitmas image. 

Travelling over four-thousand miles to finally meet his father, Dougal is a young, naïve man whose thirst for life equals his sense of adventure for those classic movie’s set in the snowscapes of a New York Christmas. He’s adorable, but you may still feel the need to choke him out. Alex Cardall captures the innocence of a man whose need for validation, his delivery thrives with energy, leaping as though his feet strike fire with each landing. He’s the perfect counter-balance of traditional cheer against coffee server Robin’s grim, sarcastic bleakness.

Tis the season of sass for Robin, though this seems to be a year-round trend for her. By and large, Tori Allen-Martin goes beyond the cold stereotypes of a festive Scrooge, into a disenchanted woman whose rejection of the holiday stems from more than simple irritation at the cheer which surrounds it. What is so utterly superb about Allen-Martin, and Buchan’s writing is that Robin is a woman, living a woman’s life. This isn’t a perfectly envisioned stereotype, with brimming white smiles, slathered across the posters for ‘kooky’ Christmas productions. Instead, openly stating that Robin’s career as a waitress isn’t concealing a midnight romance of acting or writing, Robin is a woman who is surviving.

This is The Season’s resolute stance on the genre, where happy endings are an option, but not the fairytale of New York styles of Hallmark T.V. Families aren’t always necessarily where we end-up for the holidays, and the balance of our two leads keeps the other from delving too deep into extremes. Robin’s misery is relatable, bouncing off of Dougal’s optimism, dragging him into tolerance, as the role could easily slip into irritatingly chipper. Their growing connection is genuine, as we keep romance at bay, for the most part, learning from one another and furthering their development. With surprising growth from both leads, in no doubt largely down to talented performers and Tim Jackson’s direction.

And while guilty of exposition, Kit Buchan’s script rarely dips once we move beyond the 15-minute mark. Indeed, the second act is a superior piece in timing, particularly for its comedy, to the extent the production may benefit from trimming to an extended single act production. Allen-Martin and Cardall are fully capable of carrying the production for the two-act structure, but this isn’t to say the audience can maintain the same pacing. There’s little which couldn’t be trimmed from the production’s opening. Trimming this exposition would further enhance the refusal the production has to conform with tropes, obvious cliche’s and bolster an ending which refuses to end in the way one may expect.

Sometimes the greatest love stories don’t last forever, but only a single day. The Season has a modernist narrative, which still captures the characteristics of British romantic comedies, with just enough New York sensationalism of those 80s’ Meg Ryan classics. It’s as much a piece for theatre goers as it is cinephiles, echoing an obsessive adoration for American visuals. The Season flares the embers of an emotional production, without resorting to cheap tactics, it’s an interestingly written musical, with numbers which may not live forever in our minds, but there has been an impact with solo pieces, courtesy of Cardall’s humour and Allen-Martin’s commanding, emotive vocals. 

Right now, Last Christmas is a herald of current, modern Christmas media, but to find genuine innovation, turn to the theatre for The Season’s tribute’s to festive classics, while generating it’s own path with a fresher palette of relatable, human characters rather than the standard representations musical theatre is guilty of. It might be November, but sod-it, shove some vodka in the thermos, shake those snow globes and jingle them bells, The Season takes a dash of pessimism and fuels a show with fresh, snide joy which is infectiously warm, humourous and heartfelt. 

The Season runs at Royal & Derngate Theatre until November 30th. Tickets are available from: https://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/whats-on/the-season/

Photo Credit – Pamela Raith

Annie – The Playhouse, Edinburgh

Book by Thomas Meehan

Music by Charles StrouseLyrics by Martin Charnin

Directed by Nikolai Foster

Little orphan Annie, the tale of a scrappy, fiercely independent red-head orphan, is a cornerstone of musical theatre. Lyrical, quotable and determined to put a smile on your face, the production resumes touring with a thoroughly talented cast. Escaping the spiteful gaze of Miss Hannigan, Annie sees the gritty truth of the Big Apple. Encountering a few friends along the way, in high places, and one with excess fur, Annie finds herself being taken in by billionaire Warbucks.

Usually, politeness is on hand for younger performers in the role of Annie or fellow orphans. No such modesty is needed, however, as making her professional debut, Ava Smith isn’t emulating Annie – she is Annie. Snarky, friendly yet sharp in delivery, Smith is a firecracker who can belt out the big notes, holding clarity as well as our attention. At first, Smith’s Annie feels older, but she’s portraying a young girl puffing out her feathers to intimidate the world, capturing that brazen young American, hiding a vulnerable young girl.  

We love you Miss Hannigan’, words these unfortunate orphans must recite to the drunkard who is now their carer. Lesley Joseph is certainly a Miss Hannigan to fall for. She doesn’t quite have the fangs others have given the role, Joseph instead provides her honed comedic talents. Exaggeration is everything, Joseph is a veteran of comedy, knowing where to toe the line between over the top, and accessible. From the glugs of her ‘medicine’ to the slight wobble in her movement, she somehow offers a subtlety to a role which is dangerously easy to overplay. Vocally, her numbers reserve themselves for humour and characterisation, delivering a spit-fuelled Little Girls.

Something is fascinating with the music of Annie, beloved staples of the industry; chiefly Tomorrow and It’s a Hard Knock Life, reliving these live on stage is a wholly distinctive experience. These charming ditties – known to most, transform, proving that no matter how superior a cast recording is, nothing can eclipse a live performance. Nothing can capture the expressive nostalgia of N.Y.C quite like a performer’s smile, and certainly, nothing can come close to capturing the antics of Easy Street.

Rooster by name, Rooster by nature – Richard Meek has them snakes hips we envy, strutting around like any rooster in the hen-house. Easy Street casually strolls to the forefront of our enjoyment, firmly planting itself as a favourite. Choreographer Nick Winston, with reinforcement from dance captain Amy West, maintains an upbeat presence throughout Annie. Excelling at this, giving a huge boost to the character, Meek captures the spirit of Rooster, erratic, impulsive and unpredictable.

Framing these larger than life characters is no easy feat, one Colin Richmond readily prepares for. Setting the production in an emerald tinted homage to Rob Howell’s Matilda design, Richmond works in tandem with Ben Cracknell to provide a vibrancy which manages to illuminate the theatre, from the barrel fires of Hooverville to the glitz, gold and shine of Warbucks mansion. 

Bringing the ol’ razzamatazz, Daddy Warbucks himself, Alex Bourne captures an inherent art of classical musical theatre. His performance is paternal, selling the character as a loving father as easily as the businessman. Between his warming chemistry with Smith, the presence of four-footed diva Amber the dog and a wealth of talented young women as Annie’s fellow orphans. It’s a production which goes beyond expectations.

It can be a hard knock life these days, Annie is pure escapism, it’s comforting theatre, welcoming to all with a timeless charm. An already tried and tested piece, what this recent touring does is capitalise on a strong cast who look, act and feel the part. Take a few hours out of the day, breath in that rich, city air and re-live the thriving bundle of playfulness that is Annie.

Production runs at The Edinburgh Playhouse until Saturday October 5th. Tickets available from: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/annie/edinburgh-playhouse/