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1930s Broadway Glamour in Kander & Ebb's 'Flora the Red Menace' showing now at Clapham North's Landor Theatre
(Review by Fiona Lister)
Starring: Katy Baker, Ellen Verenieks, Carly Mackelvie, Steven Sparling, Kimberley Moses, Simon Ouldred, Greg Sheffield, Scott Slaytor and Joe Shefer
Flora the Red Menace is the latest highly acclaimed production to run at the Landor Theatre in Clapham. Bursting with toe-tapping melodies and breathtaking choreography, this magical show has arrived in London 17 years after the first professional production was shown here. Produced by Andrew Yon from All Star Productions, the show’s run at the Landor Theatre follows a highly successful run at Ye Old Rose & Crown Theatre in Walthamstow. All Star Productions is the theatre company in residence at that theatre. Founded by the production’s Musical Director Aaron Clingham, All Star Productions work in a similar way to the Landor Theatre; they strive to produce high quality theatre and seek out lost theatrical gems – in fact the next show at the Landor is Curtains, also by Kander and Ebb. It’s fabulous to see All Star Productions and the Landor Theatre championing work by writers that we simply wouldn’t see were it not for the hard work of these and other Off-West End theatres and production companies.
The delightful score is written by John Kander (Composer) and Fred Ebb (Lyricist) and the story is based on the novel ‘Love is Just Around the Corner’ by Lester Atwell with the book (or script) for this musical written by George Abbott and Robert Russell. The original production opened at the Alvin Theatre on 11th May 1965 and starred a young 19-year-old Liza Minnelli in her début title role, a role that won her a Tony Award for Best Actress in Musical. Flora the Red Menace launched Liza Minnelli’s career and was Kander and Ebb’s first collaborative musical. They later went on to write Cabaret and Chicago and are best known for their famous song "New York, New York" sung by Frank Sinatra. Kander and Ebb continued to write songs for Liza Minnelli and another great musical theatre actress, Chita Rivera.
The political subject of communism may not initially sound like a contender for song and dance, but Flora is a compelling musical with one of the most powerful, beautifully written storylines - it’s fast-paced and combines comedy with Broadway glamour. Set during the Great Depression of the 1930s Flora is a musical about aspiration, poverty, choice and independence. It’s about cutting our losses and starting again. Flora could not be shown at a better time. Today we are seeing many people out of work and battling to live through the economic downturn. Politicians use silly phrases such as “Big Society”. They say everything will be fine and that “We’re all it together” and yet many small businesses are barely surviving. Young people need a break in a profession they’ve studied hard for, but can’t find one anywhere - in fact there’s a song in this show called “All I Need Is One Good Break”. The audience nodded and smiled in full appreciation! This is not a show about possessions, money, banks or greed, it’s a tender work and one that challenges beliefs, ideals, love and loss. Everyone will identify with Flora’s plight. Flora is representative of a whole new generation of struggling bohemians – a generation of creative entrepreneurs who survive on our wits by using creativity, not ones who’ve never had to fight to earn a living.
Director Randy Smartnick draws out the glamour, humour and romance within the book, making this a highly entertaining production. This is superbly directed and every inch of the Landor’s stage is used to full capacity - in particular, the dance routines by choreographer Kate McPhee are electric. Flora is breathtaking work. Sarah Dearlove has done an amazing job with the casting.
Katy Baker steals the limelight in the role of Flora Meszaros, a fashion illustrator who’s determined to find work in New York and live her dream, despite the desperately bad economy. Ms Baker gives a spellbinding performance as the ambitious, driven Flora. Like Minnelli she possesses an incredibly powerful, distinct voice but puts her own stamp on the role. Her bright red hair and angelic looks charms the audience. Katy Baker gives a bold, dynamic performance - certainly worthy of winning an award this year.
Flora is the story of a young woman who in searching for success and a job as a fashion illustrator, decides to run an artists’ co-operative of bohemians in a disused hotel ballroom. The group of young people begins their urgent quest for work and Flora is the catalyst who helps everyone at a cost to her own happiness, both in love and in her career. Flora falls for Harry Toukarian (Steven Sparling), an out-of-work designer and a communist. Steven Sparling gives a charming performance as a loveable bespectacled young man with a terrible stutter who falls in love with Flora but insists she becomes a communist. Flora has no interest in politics or communism, but in naivety and out of attraction for Harry decides to join him without knowing the long-term cost of her actions. Harry sings, “Sign Here!” until fun-loving Flora gives in and signs the paper, not understanding what it means or how it will impact on her plans.
Carly Mackelvie is fabulous in the supporting role of close friend Elsa who allows Flora to wear shoes and a dress from her design studio to an important job interview. Flora is eventually hired as a fashion illustrator by Mr. Stanley, the head of a department store. Simon Ouldred gives a grand performance as the bully boy boss who expects the best from Flora. Mr. Stanley won’t stand for lateness or anything other than perfection and adherence to his strong design ethos. Having secured her job, Flora can help her friends and manages to get work for dancing duo Kenny (Greg Sheffield) and Maggie (Kimberly Moses). There are some exquisitely choreographed tap dance routines by Kate McPhee. The exceptionally talented Greg Sheffield and Kimberley Moses give the whole production a sense of 1930s Hollywood glamour. In fact, right through his production, Kate McPhee who is also the costume designer (with costumes supplied by Dympna LeRasle – Time of Our Lives Music Theatre) captures every fashionable detail of the era - berets, floral prints, powder blue chiffon and a particularly stunning emerald green dress for Flora, provides a dash of sophisticated elegance. Crimson lipstick and pinned back hair complete the striking look.
Ellen Verenieks (Charlotte) is the vampish, delightfully sinister, reptilian matriarch of the group. Communism runs through her veins and she sets her sights on stuttering Harry. There’s a hilarious bedroom scene when Charlotte tries to remove his trousers, but Harry stutters and knocks her unconscious. Shock! Horror! It’s Valentine’s Day and Flora is knocking at his front door. Love comes at a price when poor Harry has no choice but to hide the half-dressed unconscious Charlotte under the bed.
Ellen Verenieks gives a chilling performance in the role of the communist seductress and the leader of the group, who is clearly jealous of Flora. While Flora is busy working, Charlotte manages to draw Harry further into her own world of communist ideals, until Harry is totally brainwashed and in Charlotte’s control. Charlotte sees Harry’s weakness as the perfect vehicle for moulding and sculpting her own ideas, leaving Harry committed to the political cause.
The party’s meddling eventually costs Flora her job and in the absence of work and the heart-wrenching thought that perhaps she can’t share Harry’s ideals, Flora is faced with having to cut her losses and stay true to herself. There’s a wonderful moment when Mr. Weiss (portrayed by Joe Shefer) sings “You Are You”. Shefer gives a touching performance as the older, worldly figure who reminds Flora of who she really is – an individual who is suffocating in a regime. Scott Slaytor is equally endearing in the role of Willy who inadvertently causes Flora great sorrow, but you will have to get yourselves over to the Landor Theatre to find out why.
The music is toe-tapping and the songs are powerful because of the strong lyrics. Aaron Clingham (Musical Director and Arrangements) accompanies on piano together with Adam Storey on Double Bass. Aaron is one of the Founding Members and Artistic Director of All Star Productions. Please CLICK HERE to read more about his work.
The set is one of the best Off-West End sets I’ve seen and fits very well in the Landor’s studio space. Constructed by Alex Shillito with Lighting Design by Sky Bembury, it consists of brick walls which move to reveal a further set behind them - an office, design studio and Harry’s bedroom. Today’s tight budgets haven’t restricted the creative vision of the production team. They have achieved visually strong dynamics under the direction of Randy Smartnick and come as close as possible to suggesting a Broadway set. The results are certainly impressive.
There is just one more week to see this magical theatrical gem. Don’t miss Flora the Red Menace. This timely musical is a must see show and one that you will adore. Must end Saturday 14th July.
Tickets, dates and performance times: www.landortheatre.co.uk
The Landor Theatre, 70 Landor Road, London SW9 9PH
Box Office: 020 7737 7276
(24hr answering machine service)
The Landor Theatre Box Office is located at the rear of the Landor Pub: 70 Landor Road, London SW9 9PH
The box office is open one hour before the start of each performance (During performance weeks only)