Monday, January 17, 2022

Court Theatre: LITTLE SHOP OF HURRAHS



I have been connected with the delicious spoof musical Little Shop of Horrors for a long, long time. I had clients in the first grand London production, in the film, and went on to cast the show on three continents. I even traipsed to Sheffield a couple of decades ago to see a production ... 



So, when I saw that my local theatre had recovered (hopefully permanently) from its production of mediocre and scissors-and-paste musicals, and was preparing to give us this show, I called up my Mentor and said 'This year, I shall come'.

It's odd what we get served up here in Christchurch, NZ. Basically, there are three sources of musical theatre. (1) the professional Court Theatre (2) the amateurs who have, nowadays, taken upon themselves the name of Showbiz (3) the students, otherwise NASDA, who supply many of the best artists to (1) and (2).

Options recently? Well, the amdrams are part of a share-cost affair with other NZ amdrams, so we just get Big Famous Musicals of Recent decades. Been there, seen that, don't need to see it for a 20th time. But it's amdrams, so everyone has fun, everybody's friends buy tickets ... just as they did when I was an amdrammer in the 1960s.

The Professionals? I have lived near Christchurch for 20 years. I have not been overly impressed by the staging standards and especially the show-choices at the Court Theatre in recent years. Thus, I have not attended all that often.

The students .. ? Yessssss. This year we had The Drowsy Chaperone! (Hello, Court Theatre!). Previously, The Music Man, City of Angels, Spring Awakening, Once on this Island ...

When will the professional (subsidised) theatre catch up!!!!

End of lecture


TONIGHT

OK. I went with mixed feelings. The production was promoted, with many photos, as being 'different'. I didn't want it to be 'different' ... I just wanted it to be GOOD.

Well, it was both. In fact, with a few reservations, I think it was, all in all, the most enjoyable Little Shop I've ever seen.

Different? Well, we don't have a lot of big, black-voiced jazz singers in Christchurch, so the part of Audrey II was remade around a large local lass (who was a lad last time I saw her) with airs of Divine. The idea and the performance came off splendidly for 9/10s of the show. It was grand to be able to see the plant's expressions and not just hear a disembodied voice.



Secondly, the piece was souped up a tad, with the three Skid Row girlies turned into a rather intrusive glamour backing-group with airs of the Supremes, jigging endlessly about to somewhat excessive choreography in very non-Skid Row costumes. But singing the theatre roof off!

Actually, I'm surprised the roof was still on. I think this was the loudest, most over-amplified show I've ever attended in my 60 plus years of theatre-going. Even the bar staff, in the wonderfully-decorated foyer (their menus headed 'Feed Me') confided in me 'it's awfully LOUD isn't it'. It was.

But, the triumph of the evening was in the core of the matter. Unobtrusive, clever, fresh direction (Benjamin Henson) and quite outstanding casting and performances.

I have seen most of the players before. Some come from NASDA, the local music-theatre school, with which I was periodically associated over the last quarter of a century. However, the knack lies in casting such performers correctly, and here that knack was a 100% winner.

Rutene Spooner was Seymour. I last saw him as Amos ('Mr Cellophane') in Chicago. He was the Seymour of one's dreams: just the right amount of naïveté and adorableness, and a triple threat (as befits a NASDA graduate!) with a ringing singing voice that he finally got to use to its full. A five gold star performance.

His Audrey was right up there with him. Monique Clementson had the role absolutely down to a T, teetering on her unsteady high heels on her way to her date with her nasty boyfriend, singing sweetly and gormlessly ... I didn't think anyone could equal the original Ellen Greene in this role. This lass did.



The nasty boyfriend was played by Roy Snow (Billy Flynn in Chicago). A Court musical wouldn't be a Court musical without Mr Snow, and I for one would feel robbed if he weren't in the cast. He was as superb as ever, toying with the over-the-topness of the role, and singing up a storm, although he suffered, as he suffocated, from the distortion of the over-amplification.



Way back when, when we were casting the three 'chorus girls', the auditions were short and sweet. Each postulant was made to sing, cold, the line 'Alarm goes off at seven'. Try it, it's not easy. Reminds me of my opera debut in Amahl and the Night Visitors. Umpteen bars rest, then come in bang on E ... (or was it E flat?).

Well, these three ladies (Ezra Williams, Kristin Paulse, Jane Leonard) would have surely passed the acid test. Once again, fine casting. If I prefer the trio as a 'backing group' rather than a 'fronting group', that's just me. Folks like a bit of conventional glam, even in Skid Row.



I think the first time I saw Jonathan Martin on the stage was indeed 20 years ago when he played Stine in NASDA's City of Angels. Tonight, he was a first-rate Mr Mushnik, sufficiently Jewish without stooping to Faginesque burlesque, and his song-and-dance-duet with Seymour got (rightly) the biggest applause of the night.



Of Brady Peeti's Audrey II I have spoken. It was grand ... until ... the one directorial piece of rather crass misjudgment.

When Little Shop the musical was filmed, the producers wanted to feature the jazz singer Bertice Reading. But there is no role in the piece that Bertice could play. So they invented one that would give her a chance to Do A Number. I (her agent) thought it was a pretty poor number but anyway she did it, got her large fee and I got my 10% of said fee and hoped I'd heard the last of the Rocky Horror -esque 'Mean Green Mother from Outerspace'.

No such luck. It was exhumed as a vehicle for Ms Peeti and tacked on the end of the show as an anticlimactic sort of megamix, with the cast in vulgar pantomime costumes ... Such a shame ... after the perfect finale of Seymour and Audrey I disappearing, like Don Giovanni, into the depths of death ... and the (inaudible) final obituary, to have to sit through this bit of tasteless trumpery ...

I wish I'd left before it. Then I would have no hesitation in declaring the Court Little Shop my favourite ever. Turn the sound down by 30% (or 50%), obliterate the megamixup and its mean green mother ... and, yayyy. A first-rate evening in the theatre. See you again in two years.

Why two? Because the next musical is a jukebox affair and I don't do those. Hopefully the Court won't leave the gems of the ancient and modern musical to NASDA ...







Friday, January 14, 2022

January 2022: A is for Australia, Angst and Ardern, B is for Beasties and Books, C is for Christmas and Catlets, D is for Diabetes ....



It is a month today since I arrived back home from my Ardern-imposed exile in Australia...

The Angst is fading ... I feel it will never wholly disappear during what remains of my life ... but Gerolstein is working its soothing magic ... the setting, the folk, the critturs ..


Of course, the favourite critturs are Sherbertte's five incestuous (?) kittens ... They have made themselves throughly at home, bouncing across the lawns, galumphing down the gladdies, digging up the flower pots, escalading the fences ... and even making a cats cradle of the top of what is supposed to be their peacock-proof enclave..


Their juvenile energy is amazing ..



Books. Well, brother John and I have had a prolific writing year ...



which has really come to a peak at the dawn of 2022 ... This week, John carried off the Corsham StoryTown Festival Poetry Prize for his poem Fingers Farooqi paints a story on the town wall during the night ...

A new and revised edition of my The Musical, a Concise History, with a 21st century chapter by my friend, Jamie Findlay has hit the bookstores...



And, any moment now, it will be followed by our first book together (after twenty-odd each, individually) at the ages of 76 and 72!

For some years now, we have been translating poetry from the French, at first mainly for John's volumes of international poetry, The Song Atlas and 52 Euros ... which led to, which led to, which led to .. We had a joyous time with the atmospheric, friendly works of Verhaeren, delved into everything from Yourcenar to Maeterlinck .. and our version of Baudelaire's The Cat was even named Poem of the Week by the Guardian newspaper. We were, at one stage, asked to turn our talents to the poetic (?) works of Genet. I started. Reams and reams of pretentious poppycock ... we both cried 'hold, enough' simultaneously, and dived, instead, with view-hallooo! into the wonderfully multi-coloured work of silly old Petrus. If you don't know about him, you'll enjoy discovering him. A wannabe, a dying-to-shock-and-stir guy, who actually had -- hidden among the slagheaps of posing and pretension -- some nuggets of gold to deliver ....



Yes, the new year has begun 'en trombe' ... but, alas, one less cheerful left-over from 2021. It seems that, doubtless thanks to my experiences of last year, I have fallen prey to senile diabetes. So another battle begins ...

And meanwhile the Family Books meuble is beginning to bulge at the edges ... We have over overflowed into the side-shelves! There is just a wee spot for Petrus .. I suppose I shall have to catalogue it one day ...


Time for a little stroll in the gardens before cocktail time ...








Sunday, January 9, 2022

Jenny the contralto or, the fiddler's bride


PRATT, Jenny [PRATT, Jane Mary Ann] (b 49 Rupert Street, St James Middlesex 26 September 1846; d Barnes 1926)

Mezzo-soprano Jenny Pratt had a variegated career, which ebbed and flowed for over thirty years, during which she changed name no less than five times.

Jenny was born Jane Mary Ann Pratt, the daughter of Thomas Fenwick Pratt (d 12 May 1871), a printer-compositor from Gibraltar, and dressmaker Mary Ann Bright née Fairney (b London 23 March 1825; d White Hall Park 28 July 1898), a jeweller’s daughter from a large London family. She was born sometime in 1846, and christened 25 October, which was apparently somewhat too close to her parents’ wedding date.

I don’t see any connection between the family and music, except that a Mr Henry Nelson who was ephemerally ‘secretary of the Italian opera’ is the Pratt’s house-guest in the 1861 census, but, soon after that, Jenny was enrolled in Dr Wylde’s new London Academy of Music. The St James’s Hall-based Academy had already produced its first ‘star’ pupil in ‘Mr Renwick’, and it seemed as if Miss Pratt – under the tutelage of Gustave Garcia -- might be the next. She was awarded the Academy’s first prize in singing in 1865 – ahead of Blanche Cole, Dove Dolby, Fanny Holland and Francis Gaynar – and shown off at the 1866 pupils’ concert in ‘Una voce poco fa’ and the Tancredi duet with Miss Dolby, with her laurels intact.

On 24 June 1867, Miss Jenny Pratt made her first public appearance, and it was at St James’s Hall, at the most fashionable concert of the season, that of Julius Benedict, on the most starry bill of the year including artists from Titiens, Dolby and Nilsson to Mongini, Santley and Reeves. Why? How? But Benedict would invite little Miss Pratt to his mighty concerts for a number of years. It can’t have been just because she sang his ‘By the sad sea waves’ so nicely.



She sang at Kate Gordon’s concert (‘a Rossini aria with taste and judgement’), and did the rounds of the spa towns and resorts, before on 7 December making a debut at the Crystal Palace, singing ‘Fanciulle che il core’ and Edward Silas’s version of Longfellow’s ‘The Curfew’, alongside Edith Wynne and Nelson Varley.

With the new year, Jenny Pratt made another first appearance, on the bill of the fifth of the season’s Boosey Ballad Concerts, singing the contralto favourites ‘The Lady of the Lea’ and ‘The Storm’ on a bill where the other contralto was Mme Sainton-Dolby.

During 1868, she appeared at the Crystal Palace, the Schubert Society, St James’s Hall, the Beethoven Rooms, with Mme Lemmens-Sherrington in the provinces, at Mr Austin’s concerts and at St George’s Hall, almost always purveying ‘The Lady of the Lea’, ‘Il Segreto’, ‘By the Sad Sea Waves’ or Benedict’s ‘Rock me to sleep’.

When Charles Goffrie’s Lujza Liebhart concerts at the Agricultural Hall began in September, Miss Pratt was on several of the programmes (‘By the sad sea waves’, ‘The Minstrel Boy’, ‘Ben e ridicolo’). The other contralto was the unknown Sofia Scalchi ‘from Bologna’. The conductor, Julius Benedict.

In 1869, she can be seen at the concert of the harpist J Balsir Chatterton singing a song written by that gentleman’s son, T Davenport Chatterton (‘My soul is dark’), at the Glasgow Saturday Evening concerts, at the Holborn Amphitheatre giving the Stabat Mater alongside a lecture, at concerts of Austin, Miss Clinton Fynes, L S Palmer and Benedict, but when she returned to Glasgow, in early 1870, it was in a different capacity and under a different name. She was Mdlle Prati.

She had become Italianised, because she had been hired as a minor member of the Covent Garden Italian Opera Company alongside Mademoiselles Madigan, O’Brien, Clinton, Schofield, Bailey et al. Both she and Mlle Madigan were billed with the principals, but the only role I can see Jenny playing during the season is Third Boy in Il flauto magico. The company continued to Liverpool and to London, and Jenny remained a member, although rarely seen.



In 1871, she was back being ‘Jenny Pratt’ once more ‘a capital mezzo-soprano’ or ‘an exceedingly good contralto’ or ‘a clear and powerful contralto’ in the occasional London concert, and many more at the seaside resorts which she seemed to favour. Margate voted her ‘one of the best singers we remember to have heard at the Hall by the Sea’. Margate would remain a regular date.

In the autumn she took part in Rivière’s Covent Garden Proms (including Elijah), in November she visited Belfast for the Monday Pops, and December she was seen singing the Stabat Mater and the Sundays for the People. In early 1872 she returned to the Boosey Ballad concerts (‘The Skipper and his Boy’, ‘The Green Trees Whispered’) and later fulfilled a season at the Surrey Gardens.

But, in June 1872, she stepped back into being ‘Mdlle Prati’ for a little while, to play the role of Martha opposite Hervé in Doctor Faust (Le Petit Faust) at Holborn. A critic who was clearly out of sympathy with opéra-bouffe disliked the whole show and found ‘the only trace of refined acting or pretty singing is in Mdlle Prati’s performance of Martha’. Which would mean she didn’t play the grotesque Martha as the authors intended. The show – with Mrs Paul replacing Hervé – didn’t last long, and she was soon back at Margate (‘a special favourite here’) giving her ‘Minstrel Boy’, ‘Cherry Ripe’, ‘Charley is my darlin’’ and ‘Love was once a little boy’.




In 1873-4, once more, she alternated the seaside, the Boosey Ballad Concerts, the Sunday concerts (Stabat Mater, Jephtha, Judas Maccabeus, St Paul, Elijah) and the Covent Garden Promenade Concerts, where she played Grimwald, the page, in the first performance of Meyer Lutz’s The Legend of the Lys with Constance Loseby, J H Pearson and Furneaux Cook. At Tunbridge Wells, she turned to the politer form of operetta when she played in Randegger’s The Rival Beauties.

‘Politer’ theatre did not last long. In September 1874, Miss Pratt opened at the Philharmonic Theatre, Islington, in the first English-language production of Giroflé-Girofla, starring Julia Mathews. After her not-very-heavy dame in Le Petit Faust she was cast, this time, as the soubrette, Paquita, opposite Fannie Manetti as Pedro, and was adjudged ‘sprightly’. From the Phil, she progressed to Holborn again, cast by John Hollingshead, with the Gaiety Theatre company, first as Thisbe to Connie Loseby’s Cinderella (‘excellent singing … vivacity’), then as Madame Lange in La Fille de Madame Angot. ‘Her acting fell a little short, but her singing atoned’, as she brought down the house with the famous waltz finale. When she appeared as Fleurette in Bluebeard it was commented that ‘she is becoming much more at home on the stage, she acted in a graceful and ladylike manner as Fleurette and her good voice was employed with considerable skill’.

When the company returned to the Gaiety, Miss Pratt went too. She appeared in singing roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (‘Over hill and over dale’) and as Ceres in The Tempest singing the music which shapely Marian West as Ariel could not manage. Next, she was deployed to the Alexandra to repeat her Madame Lange, before her contract terminated. Miss Pratt continued her theatrical phase a little longer. She visited Liverpool where she played -- ‘the celebrated vocalist’ -- at the Amphitheatre in a ‘special adaptation’ of the Paulton brothers’ The Black Crook (Princess of Balzac), The Waterman and After Dark (with a song) but, after that, she seems to have simply folded up the stage, and returned definitively to the concert platform.




Over the next years, her name appears repeatedly in the same selection of venues, at the Brighton and Scarborough Aquariums, with Rivière at his Covent Garden Proms or his Aquarium concerts, at the Alexandra Palace… She also changed her name again. On 11 March 1878, Miss Pratt became Mrs William Henry Eayres, wife of the divorced violinist.



This was not a good idea, for Eayres was a serial adulterer with a scandalous history. His first wife had dragged him through the courts and noisily displayed his sexual misdeeds in a ‘letter to the musical profession’, which ended her up in the courts for libel. Jenny didn’t keep him on the straight and narrow for long. By 1882, he was at it again, and, in 1884, ended up in court again at the behest of one Alexander Glen Collins, whose wife he had repeatedly borrowed. The lawsuit went to the House of Lords, and became a much quoted precedent on ‘condoning’. I don’t suppose Jenny condoned, but she didn’t divorce him till 1887.

Mrs Eayres (as ‘Madame Jenny Pratt’) appeared from time to time in London (Aquarium, Alexandra Palace, Crystal Palace), but spent the large part of her time entertaining in the ‘spots’ of England: at the Blackpool Winter Gardens, the Southsea Pier, the Scarborough Aquarium, with the Southampton Philharmonic Society or at the Winter Gardens, Morecambe. She gave the occasional Athalie, Undine, or The First Walpurgisnight, but more often was heard in her old favourites or a new ballad such as Behrend’s ubiquitous ‘Auntie’.

Latterly, she took out little concert party troupes, sometimes with her pupils, and this seems to have been where she encountered a young stationery traveller with a deep bass voice named Ernest John Robinson (b Hoxton, October 1860; d 11 Victoria Avenue, Finchley, 2 September 1929). As soon as she had divorced, they were married, and in her second marriage Jenny found the happiness she had not found in the first. The Robinsons had two daughters, Victoria Jane Maryann (b 102 Gaisford Street 24 May 1888; d Worthing 18 July 1975) and Ethel Annie Fairney (b 65 Patshull Rd Kentish Town 11 October 1891; d Worthing 21 May 1979).



Mrs Jane Robinson continued to work as ‘Madame Jenny Pratt’ into the 1890s, but there was one more name change to come. Ernest chose to be called ‘Mr Ernest Loder’ for his modest career as a professional vocalist, and somehow the Robinson family became known as Loder. Jenny could be seen appearing in the occasional local concert at Clacton-on-Sea or Frinton, with ‘Go, lovely Rose’ or ‘She wore a wreath of roses’, up to the turn of the century, as ‘Mrs Loder’.

Mrs Loder seems to have died in 1926. Mr Loder died three years later (3 Victoria Avenue, Finchley 2 September 1929) leaving a fortune of 22,000 pounds. There must have been a lot of money in stationery.

William Eayres got himself another, much younger, wife, from Scotland, whence he had fled awhile, and he died in 1920.







Friday, January 7, 2022

A star in New Hampshire: Mrs Nichols.

 

I strayed today.  In my daily pre-breakfast zip through the pages on ebay, I have a system. Well, you have to reduce the number of items to look at or breakfast would never happen. So I 'search' for my keywords with a few minuses.  -Rare. Anything labelled 'rare' is almost certain not to be. -! Any listing full of exclamation marks is going to be a waste of time ...    I haven't got the time to waste on such as 'RARE! Dancer!! Christina Nilson'. Anyway, that's my ebay method. 

I also, alas, have a handicapped right arm/hand (legacy of a stroke) and have been reduced to typing with two fingers, so sometimes mistakes happen, and yesterday I pushed the wrong key when applying my filters and landed on 'Rare Antique Victorian American Costumed Singer Emma Nichols PA CDV Photo Lot!'  Emma [J] Nichols? Never heard of her. A plain little lady with the most preposterous cloak and tiara .. what on earth was she. Well, let's have a late breakfast ...



Here's the result.

Emma J NICHOLS was indeed, for a decade, a singer in the western part of America. But that is not a costume. That was evidently her platform garb. For Emma was a ballad singer with minor concert groups in, mostly, the western part of the United States. 

Emma was born Emma J DAVIS in Lowell, Mass 4 February 1841. Father was Zebulon Davis (1798-1868), a farmer in Rockingham, New Hampshire, mother Sally née Huckins, and there were three elder siblings (Daniel, Rebecca, Laura). Emma married, in her teens (August 1858) a clerical worker by the name of Thomas J Nichols, son of a local shoemaker.

By 1860, already, she is advertising as a teacher of singing, and by 1862 she is the soprano with Father Jim T Gulick's 'Continental Old Folks Company', a company performing olde tyme songs, in 18th century costumes around 1 and 2 night stands from New Brunswick, Trenton, Princeton, Bordentown, Burlington, Mount Holly, Frankford ..  fellow performers, Messrs George M Shep(p)ard, J H Holloway and Gulick.


Mr Gulick went on to become one of Newcombe's Minstrels, the Dupres and Benedict Minstrels.

'Father Kemp's Old Folks Company' 'from Reading, Mass' (37 members) had originally (1857?) been an amateur group which had sung its 18th century chorales in costume at Niblo's Garden in 1859. The star act was 92 year-old Grandfather Foss with his Great Grandfather Fiddle. Emma soon transferred to the Kemp group (now 22 people with her as featured soprano), which made a trip to England in 1860 to show their novelty act. Mr Nichols was now 'Father Kemp's treasurer.  Emma 'the celebrated New England Songstress' stayed for nearly a decade years with these two troupes (which became ''Father' Kemp junior's' and the Continental Old Folks), progressing in her billing to 'the Jenny Lind of America'. In 1869 I see her setting out from Neponset, Mass, as a member of Spaudling's Bell Ringers, through Plainfield, Washington, Hackettstown, Orange, Newton, Newark ...

In 1870 (20 February), Emma gave birth to a son, Edwin Bowley Nichols, by  time Mr Nichols was listed as 'professor of music'. I don't see her performing thereafter. She is listed in 1870 as 'Music teacher'. Thomas is 'farm labourer'. 

Emma died of peritonitis at home at Plaistow NH, one day after her 39th birthday. I don't know what became of Thomas. Edwin (shoecutter) married, had a son, and weeks later committed suicide (24 October 1896), aged 26. The son changed his name ...

Bit of a sad tale, really. Better put my filters back on.

And look what's turned up after all that!


Happily, they don't carry the story to its end.

And what IS that cloak? An 18th century New Hampshire national costume?