“It’s A Hit! tells the show-stopping story of musical theatre…” — well, yes, it is indeed show-stopping. In the sense that this is not a fully-formed show but a collection of musical theatre ‘greatest hits’ compiled by actor-director Jack Graham, musical director Jonathan Soman and their five-strong cast of three leading-ladies, one leading-man and… yes, I’ve already mentioned Jack Graham’s directing himself. Good.
I asked why they hadn’t chosen to do fully-fledged musical. First-year Jack, who’s also appearing in Cabaret this term, said “we’re able to mould the show around what we’ve got” and added that he and Jonathan were “annoyed about the small amount of musical theatre in Oxford.” Hmm. I’ve heard that one a few times, but there are invariably 6 or 7 productions a year.
This will be a chronological revue of 10 songs from Anything Goes to Avenue Q, tailored to play to the cast’s strengths. Jonathan says “the songs are mostly solos and duets to make use of the intimacy of the Burton Taylor Studio”, with narration to link them together. As for musicians, there will be piano, flute and percussion. It’s the usual BT drill of a minimalist set and costume (one differentiating piece per song) but Jack and Jonathan face the challenge of transposing some big song-and-dance numbers into the small-scale Burton Taylor Studio. When it comes to that, the all-too-often relied upon “intimacy” won’t cut it alone.
I’m pleased to hear that “the main focus of the songs will be character” — indeed, what else could it be — and Jack’s first question of his actors in rehearsal is “who are you?”. To bring out the emotional, thoughtful and reflective aspects of each song is a stellar aim, only slightly undermined by Jack enthusing that his show will bring out the “bitchiness” of West Side Story’s ‘America’, rather than the spectacle.
The production team were pleased with the turnout at auditions, which must be true from what I saw. Jonathan lists “a diverse cast” of Heather Young, Holly Graham, Hannah Bristow and Zaiky Manji. I watched Hannah and Holly rehearse Take Me or Leave Me from Rent, a song they’re doing because Holly “nailed it” in the audition. With one week to go, the harmonies aren’t quite there and Hannah Bristow’s technique is raw without warming-up but, boy, can she belt! This number poses some challenges for Holly who is a deep alto but Jonathan promises a mind-blowing rendition of When You’re Good To Mama from Chicago, which will be more in her comfort zone.
To people who hate musicals, Jack and Jonathan wheel out the old defences. Jack says, “They’re close-minded. Pop music is very accessible but musical theatre grows on you.” Jonathan adds, “Reviewers sometimes don’t understand what musical theatre is. We want to give people a chance to correct their view. Not all the songs are ‘happy clappy’. We’ll show the diversity in this whole genre.” An ambitious aim.
Lyrics and notes will need to be learned (and harmonies tightened) but there is a strong sense of character and good vocals (not to mention good ‘New Yoik’ accents). Presumably the staging will be tightened up — with one week to go, Jack’s emphasis on the actors’ “freedom to roam” is not entirely convincing. In rehearsal, Jonathan asked if I had any thoughts. I panicked and uttered a few meaningless pleasantries. Jack and Jonathan — keep aiming just to do it well, rather than to celebrate musical theatre and correct non-believers’ ‘flawed’ views, and you shouldn’t go wrong. Costume and choreography is by Molly Brown.
It’s a Hit! will be playing at the BT Studio in 2nd week, 24th – 28th at 9.30pm, £6 (£5)
PHOTO/ Santhy Balachandran