Ain’t No Angels
Sutton Coldfield Town Hall
Dress Rehearsal Review – 4 June 2018
Al Jolson and Frank Sinatra are two of the most famous singers of the 20th century and their stories are combined in this brilliant production in the impressive grandeur of Sutton Coldfield Town Hall. This musical was performed last year at the Lichfield Garrick and received rave reviews and it is easy to see why based on the dress rehearsal I went to last night.
The idea for Ain’t No Angels came from musical director Ken Wragg, it tells the story of the animosity between the veteran singer and performer Al Jolson and the legendary crooner Frank Sinatra. Rivals in life they are reunited in death when they are brought back together in a virtual waiting room, somewhere between heaven and hell, as they await their calling to one direction or the other. As they wait they bicker and argue about which of them was the greatest singer and who had more hits, while a heavenly mediator, Mr Wellbeloved, tries to keep the peace and shows them the error of their ways in their mortal lives.
As both men relive their past they provide the soundtrack of their lives through their songs, initially like a verbal ‘duelling banjos’ as they try to outscore each other, but then eventually as more harmonious duets. Woven into this tapestry of classic songs are the events, personalities and partners that they encounter on the way, from their mothers, their (many) partners, lovers, contemporaries and wives, to the ensemble cast of their fellow performers and artistes that they have worked with over the decades.
As both men, initially stubborn, unbending and unrepentant, see their previous lives unfold and see the hurt they have inflicted upon the people who loved and respected them, they start to realise the error of their ways and wish they had been more generous, supportive and forgiving. They also see, through the suffering and torment that their respective rival has gone through, that there is another side to them and both men gradually begin to respect and appreciate the other.
They now stand before an unseen and all-powerful jury who must decide if they have done enough to repent and move along the up, rather than down, escalator towards heaven rather than towards hell. But have they shown true repentance – or will the jury think that they are just putting on another showman award winning performance to avoid the fiery furnace of Hell? Just who is the rather mysterious Mr Wellbeloved – is he a friend or a foe? And will their much put-upon marital partners ever truly forgive them?
Although the animosity between the two men is exaggerated for dramatic effect, this musical is based upon a true falling out between Sinatra and Jolson. Jolson’s star was waning when Sinatra came on the scene and the bad feeling probably emanated from the fact that Sinatra was the new kind on the block while Frank saw Jolson as the has-been still trying to steal his limelight. Regardless of the truth behind the rivalry the premise is still a convincing one – both men were known for being ruthless in their work, and home, lives and it would be very probably that two such huge stars of the stage and screen would not get on.
The musical combines a fascinating background story of the early to late 20th century, with key events, occasions and personalities with a pulsating soundtrack of the hits of Jolson and Sinatra providing dozens of singalong classics to the beat of a live, swing band. It is truly a show of hit after hit as Jolson sings Swanee. April Showers, Sonny Boy, I’m Sitting on Top of the World and When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Boppin Along, and Sinatra replies with I’ve Got You under My Skin, Birth of the Blues, Somethin’ Stupid and That’s Why The Lady is a Tramp.
It also includes lots of, perhaps, less well known facts about the lives of the two men including the personal tragedies that affected them both such as the death of Sinatra’s elderly and much loved mother, and the tragic story of one of Jolson’s adopted children. This provides a fascinating insight into both Jolson and Sinatra and perhaps explains some of their actions and personalities – this definitely adds to the production experience and enjoyment.
Paul Lumsden, who also produces and directs the show, and Paul Roberts play Sinatra and Jolson respectively to perfection, bouncing off each other as rivals in life-turned-friends in after life and have a great time singing the classic hits of these two greats with obvious relish and enjoyment. Great together as solo performers as well as on the duets, they are impressive throughout.
Charlotte Middleton and Sian Jones play the (long suffering) partners of the two greats as well as a host of other female personalities of the day – Ava Gardener, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Mia Farrow to name but a few. Both sing, dance and portray this wide range (and diverse age group from 18 year old to 82 year old) of characters with great gusto, aplomb and have a blurring array of costume changes – I really don’t know how they do all this and still remember their lines and song lyrics – amazing!
Chris Wolverson plays Mr Wellbeloved, the MC who links and weaves the story all together but also plays a number of other characters, stage managers, producers and other stars including crooners Dean Martin and Bing Crosby – complete with the obligatory pipe of course!
With a cast of only five it is incredible just how many famous and not-so-famous characters appear on stage in various guises – at the curtain call I kept on looking behind the curtains to see where the other performers were, it seemed almost impossible for a cast of five to play a cast of hundreds! Lots of hard work and behind the scenes clearly went into this, well done to the whole cast and all the backstage crew for achieving this so seamlessly and professionally.
Music is provided by a ‘proper’ swing live band, all ably controlled by the show’s creator and musical director, Ken Wragg, and it all sounds fantastic in the impressive auditorium of the Town Hall. Lively, fun and time-appropriate choreography is provided by Angie Astell.
This is a great production with a song track that most musicals would die for, that has two of the most iconic names of the 20th century, a list of star names as long as your (fully extended) arm, witty one liners, historical accuracy with a musical and social timeline of the 1920s to 1980s, drama, pathos, tears of joy and of sadness and all performed with great heart, dedication and versatility.
Highly recommended, it is only on for two nights so please don’t miss out on this limited opportunity!
Ain’t No Angels is on at the Sutton Coldfield Town Hall, on Tuesday 5 and Wednesday 6 June 2018 starting at 7.30pm. Tickets priced at £16 and £14 for concessions, available from the Town Hall, ring 0121 2969 543 or book online at:
Review from the dress rehearsal on Monday 4 June 2018