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:

Lauren Turner: Play On is available from Broadway Records now

Peter Pan Live! – The Show Must Go On

Written by Irene Mecchi

Directed by Rob Ashford & Glenn Weiss

Rating: 2 out of 5.

For several years now, American television network NBC has been adapting beloved musicals into televised theatrical productions. Originally designed to air in early June – The Shows Must Go On moves forward, allowing the Americans their chance to show the world their 2014 production of one of the UK’s timeless, definitive stories – Peter Pan.

Peter Pan – Live!’s structure is closer to a film set than a stage. There are no open walls for the audience, utilising closed sets and models for authenticity, rather than suggestion. The effects, particularly models and costumes, are impressive and match more substantial theatrical output. Breaking immersion though, the camera work is choppy, and focus (technical and figurative) drops frequently, beginning the descent of what had promise as an engaging adaption of Carolyn Leigh’s 1954 musical.

Christopher Walken as Captain James Hook. That should be the golden ticket, right? Attempting his finest Anthony Head impersonation, Walken is at his Walkenest but lacks the fire to sell the character. His speak-singing stagnates much of the solitary numbers, as Hook shifts from a blustering dandy of refinement into a jazz singer, slow and methodical, but without the passion or signature moves. It strips much of the original musical’s tight, atmospheric score with rich musical numbers. And what should be the breakaway number, Wonderful World Without Peter, lacks oomph from Walken, as Alison Williams circles the tiring, unenthusiastic cut-throat. Taunting him, leaping to-and-fro, a clash of children’s literature greatest becomes no more than a meandering farce of cheap camera angles, smoke-machines and a Hook who could do with a lie-down in a dark room with some Ibuprofen.

At the time, the casting of Williams as Pan raised eyebrows for some. Throughout the production, it’s evident that Williams is certainly an accomplished performer, with a dash more energy and vigour than many other cast members – though, in true American fashion, there’s nary an English accent which isn’t crossing into painfully one-note. Her attitude as Pan conveys a significantly less bratty, more self-assured Pan, aiding in the rivalry with an older Captain Hook. This isn’t to say Williams refrains from the jolly adolescence of Pan’s naivety, with her frequent ‘crow’ calls and ensemble number I Won’t Grow Up, featuring tight choreography from the Lost Boys.

A gaggle of the missing Boris brood – far from the fur-clad youngsters of imagination, these Lost Boys are instead an Etonian nightmare of school ties, Chads & Nigels. Playful, they can’t capture the essence of boyhood innocence. Most side characters suffer. None more so than Tinkerbell, reduced to a CGI blip, combined with practical lighting effects – emerging from the pages of J.M Barrie’s classic though are Mr & Mrs Darling, Kelli O’ Hara and Christian Borle.

Vocally, Kelli O’ Hara finds herself at home with a maternal beauty and clarity in her vocals. Meanwhile, Borle produces significant laughs with his physical characterisation of Mr Smee and portrays Mr Darling with such a stiff-upper-lip, it’s impressive he can breathe. Perhaps the most sweeping impact is from Minnie Driver’s brief cameo as adult Wendy, who, as expected, elevates the entire scene and has such intense chemistry with Williams, it’s a shame this wasn’t the entire show – insightful, touching and capturing the fairy dust of the century-old tale.

Is Peter Pan – Live! as bad as it could have been? Far from it, it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s fine, which in a story of fairies, swashbuckling and crocodiles is its vastest crime. What results are islands of whimsical brilliance in a sea of peculiarities, wasted potentials and obscure choices which confirms directors Rob Ashford & Glenn Weiss’ inability to find that second star to the right.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub:

Ghost Stories – Netflix

Directed by Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar & Anurag Kashyap

Written by Various

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Prospects begin highly with a creative, richly designed title sequence from Studio Kokaachi, the team behind Netflix’s Lust Storiesscored to a notably foreboding composition by Benedict Taylor. This time, they’re attempting to make the heart stop, rather than pump, with a quintet of Ghost Stories. Endeavouring to infuse Hindi culture into a variety of narratives, themes, and locations – it’s advisable to watch in Ghost Storie’s native language. If not only due to the English dub being excruciatingly awkward and, on occasion, half-arsed in delivery.

Ghost Stories divvies itself into four shorts, roughly twenty-five minutes or so each. All individually performed, directed, and written, there’s an absolute failure in arcing the storytelling. An anthology can indeed contain a selection of seemingly random short films, but notable feature presentations tie together their choices with an overarching structure. Deceptively long at two and a half hours, by the third story Ghost Stories feels like an unsuccessful television pilot of singular episodes. So, what spine-tingling frights await?

Firstly, if you’re able to recognise anything through Tanay Satam’s shockingly lit cinematography, Zoya Akhtar’s opening segment addresses the imbalanced respect developing between younger generations in India and their elders. Was there potential for Vijay Maurya & Ensia Mirza’s screenplay? Plenty. It’s an engaging concept which does echo cultural concerns, not only in India. As with the cinematography and direction, this first segment misses most of the marks it sets out on. It intends to offer a slow-building dread, as a young carer (Janhvi Kapoor) lives in with an ailing woman, who seems to think her son is still sleeping next door, despite being entirely alone. What culminates is a rushed, confusing ending which puts what little atmosphere had been building to squander.

Segments two and four (as none are given individual titles) are afflicted with similar issues. Upsettingly, they also share the largest waste of potential. Both contain a competent cast with an intriguing premise, with Karan Johar’s final tale the only actual ‘ghost’ story among the lot. Johar’s tale takes a contemporary approach, as newly-weds move into the family home only for the husband to talk to his deceased grandmother, including during sex. Attempts at discomfort though are dashed with the forced humour, which is completely out of place in the story. It isn’t providing levity, as the story isn’t that off-putting, and simply cheapens the potential.

So, is anything worth a watch? It’s worth a fast forward. Dibakar Banerjee’s untitled third story is a glimmering gem which deserves a far superior platform. Concise, the narrative allows for steady pacing and the only authentic chills the film produces. Arriving in a small, rural town, a man (Sukant Goel) finds the town deserted and distressed. Two young children emerge, crying for his help from the hidden villagers who remain, now zombies, but also something more. It takes it’s time and has comprehensive performances. The fear is tangible, and the zombies are just eerie enough to be off-putting without stretching into fantasy territory. The climax takes a clever, if a little on the nose turn, as the man awakens to find not everything was as it seems, but that the reality he faces may be worse.

Where horror should reflect a political or cultural climate of the day or hell, merely ensure you sleep with the lights on – Ghost Stories fails to rumble in the night and if anything, will ensure a good night’s sleep. Save for Dibakar Banerjee’s third story, which secures the film’s only worthiness, this anthology of spooky tales fails to capture the audience’s attention and perhaps more insultingly inspires little imagination.

Review originally published for The Wee Review:

Ghost Stories is available to stream on Netflix now