Sparkle and shine comes to Leicester for this festive favourite.
Knighton Park Amateur Operatic Society (KPAOS) are uniquely positioned in The Little Theatre's calendar to take on a Christmas show. With the entirety of December dedicated to pantomime, there aren't many other opportunities beyond late November, so KPAOS have taken advantage, and brought Nativity! The Musical to Leicester. Niche was invited to review the dress rehearsal.
The show is based upon the much-loved film series, adapting the original 2009 movie for the stage. At least a third of the Niche office know its songs inside-out and back-to-front. Ironically, I'm not one of them... I've never seen Nativity!, so I was able to come to this production fresh and uninfluenced by the movie.
The story is built around three childhood friends who dreamed of becoming actors. Two of whom - Mr Maddens (Daniel Rowberry) and Mr Shakespeare (Alex Thompson) - grew up to become rival primary school teachers. The third, Jennifer (Grace Bale), actually did go to Hollywood... sort of.
Our story gets going when Mr Maddens is tasked with producing the school's nativity play - something he'd sworn he'd never do again. To complicate matters, his newly appointed teaching assistant - the overly-enthusiastic and filled-with-child-like-wonder, Mr Poppy (Ed Turner) is assigned to "help".
Competition with Mr Shakespeare's rival school leads to an unfortunate, escalating lie, that suggests Hollywood is interested in Mr Maddens' nativity, generating much excitement from the pupils, parents, and citizens of Coventry. For Mr Maddens, it becomes an opportunity to reunite with old flame and now-Hollywood-super-producer, Jennifer. Or so he hopes...
The first thing that strikes you upon arrival in the theatre is a simple but great set, with the stage framed by Christmas presents that get you into the festive spirit immediately, even if it is "only November" (if you're feeling a bit humbug about it, this is not the show for you...).
The other strong visual element is the costumes. Possibly one of the best society-staged musicals I've seen from a wardrobe perspective, offering a range of Christmas jumpers, elf/reindeer costumes, Hollywood tourists, and sequins, to name but a few. Everything feels appropriate to the story and the setting.
There is a lot to love about this show. Unfortunately, the director, Joshua J Knott, had to leave the production four months into rehearsal due to a professional opportunity that's taken him abroad. As a result, there are moments where this feels like his "unfinished symphony" - a lot of artistic beauty and ideas with promise... but incomplete. Other directors have stepped in to help bring it to the stage, but the company (especially the kids) would've benefitted from one vision and uninterrupted time spent on fine-tuning.
Fortunately, the experienced adult cast are doing everything they can to make it work. The ensemble is populated with KPAOS and Little Theatre veterans - many of whom have had lead or featured roles in other musicals, and that collective know-how holds the show together.
Further cohesion is found through Ellie Newbrooks' choreography - a lot of her work here is subtle, elevating quieter character moments, or emphasising the exuberance in Turner's portrayal of Mr Poppy. But Newbrooks really gets to flex her dance pedigree in the group numbers; "Sparkle and Shine" does just that, with the full company on stage, synchronised, and looking like this is the most fun they've ever had in their life.
The principal actors do lovely work. Daniel Rowberry does a confident job as Mr Madden. Not an easy part, because the character's negativity could make him quite unlikeable, so it requires the performer to bring plenty of warmth to the role - in the style of film counterpart, Martin Freeman. Rowberry has a nice balance here, portraying both the downtrodden and optimistic sides of the character. He also has good chemistry with Bale's Jennifer, including the awkwardness of seeing an ex after a long time.
Ed Turner is performing his socks off as Mr Poppy. The part requires so much energy and enthusiasm, and Turner never waivers. He sings, he dances, he adds jokes to the script (the Martin Freeman line got me). He's very much the show's daft heart.
Though I will say - as a criticism of the script, not the performer or production - having Mr Poppy also tell the story is an odd choice. His child-like naivety makes for an unreliable narrator, and I think the impact of "My Very First Day at School" would be greater if we hadn't already seen the character.
Grace Bale's classical vocal training is obvious in her role as Jennifer. This is Bale's first featured role, but she delivers a confident, naturalistic acting performance, coupled with a highly impressive soprano singing voice. I can tell that she'll gain a lot of confidence from this run, and I'm sure this won't be the last time we see Bale in a key role.
It's a month early, but Alex Thompson is in full on pantomime villain mode for Mr Shakespeare. His performance is full of attack, and his performance in "Herod! The Rock Opera" doesn't hold back, in a way that hilarious and joyfully ridiculous.
I wish the script was a bit more explicit about why Mr Shakespeare and Mr Maddens fell out - they seem to go from childhood best friends to theatrical rivals out of the blue - but it doesn't really hold the story back.
The supporting characters add plenty of value too. To highlight a few, Keziah Caldwell is the grown up in the room, bringing authority and dignity to Mrs Bevan (though Caldwell is far too youthful to play a teacher on the verge of retirement!), David Lovell (emerging from hibernation for the time this season, after appearing in six productions last year) brings a fun and silly edge to the role of Coventry's Lord Mayor, and Martin Green brings a deliciously flamboyant bitchiness to the role of cut-throat reviewer, Patrick Burns.
There's over 20 children in this show (and two teams doing alternate nights, so 40+ in total). 20 is a lot. If I'm totally honest, I think it's too many. Not because they're not good - there's a lot of talent here, offering a lot of hope for the rich future of the Little Theatre - but there's not much opportunity for them all to get in the spotlight. The classroom scenes would've been adequately populated with half as many children, and it would've given each of them more to do.
However, what it does add is much needed volume. The 10-piece band are in the orchestra pit, and many of the children are without microphones. For them to be heard over the band is a challenge, but there's strength in numbers.
The more prominently featured kids are great. Watching the dress rehearsal, I saw both teams; team Shine in the first half, team Sparkle in the second. Both Ruby Preston and Autumn Lisseman were great as Evie/Star - full of energy and with confident performances. Ethan Jones and Harvey Clarridge (the latter of whom is on his third show at the Little this calendar year) are very assured as Ollie, and have a nice chemistry with Messrs Poppy and Maddens. And Hattie Moore (also a TLT veteran) and Eve Dagley were strong as TJ/Angel Gabriel; in act two, Moore really owned the stage for her performance in "Good News".
I'm seeing this show again on the final night, and I look forward to seeing it with a cast that have settled into this show and grown in confidence. There's plenty of charm here and a lot to enjoy; it will get stronger and stronger throughout the week, as it plays to sold out houses.
Get ready to feel Christmassy!
KPAOS's production of Nativity! The Musical is at The Little Theatre, November 21-25, 2023. Tickets are sold out, but call the box office (0116 255 1302) to join the waiting list.