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Viva Mexico!

Date

7th November 2017

Society

St Cuthberts Amateur Operatic & Dramatic Society Burnley

Venue

St Cuthbert’s Community Hall

Type of Production

Musical

Director

Janet Gilbert & Lesley Riley

Musical Director

Stuart North

Choreographer

Janis Condon

Report

Author: David Slater

This bizarre musical tortilla of a show takes some very familiar Latin American tunes and spins a jolly little story around them, taking in just about every ‘sombrero and castanets’ cliche you could imagine as it goes along. The good people at St Cuthbert’s obviously have a soft spot for this show but it was new to me and so I approached the evening with more than un poco of interest. The promised riot of light hearted musical fun was certainly forthcoming and the large audience went away into the cold, wet evening brightened hugely by the warming Mexican sunshine.

After a rather uneven overture, things picked up in no time as we were introduced to the company with El Rancho Grande with Mama Inez (Christine Chadwick) leading the opening number in fine style. Bathed in sunshine and with colourful costumes galore, it was a fine introduction to the Mexican musical melée before us. The cast list was as full of exotic characters as an overfilled taco and all of them were brought to life vividly by a talented cast who clearly threw themselves into proceedings with enthusiasm. Christine was every inch the Latin matriarch and was in control of events throughout the show and her son, the cheeky bandit (‘El Zorro’ no less!) was brought to life marvellously by Elliott Griffiths: here is a young performer worth keeping a close eye on for the future as he gave a wonderfully controlled performance as Ramon. Raquelita (a Bella Señorita) was given a very forceful interpretation by Vicki Riley who perfectly expressed the rumbustious, fiery temperament of the character. Vicki and Elliott made a great pairing and their duets were a highlight of the show for me, ‘Love Stay in my Heart’ in particular. Villainous chief of police, Lopez, was an excellent piece of work from John McNabb who brought weight and a dramatic edge to his characterisation which nevertheless complemented the rest of the frothy nonsense on stage very well indeed: not an easy trick to pull off but John walked the line very well indeed. His second in command, the bumbling Bernardo, was given a loveable comic characterisation by Blake Morris: a little too much in the way of wrist, elbow and hand gestures for me though, but the audience seemed to enjoy his Mexican hand jiving nevertheless! Hapless henchmen Pepe and Pablo were two very vivid creations in the hands of Robert Riley and Jason Morris, slapstick antics and general tomfoolery guaranteed with their every appearance. If their ‘Mañana’ was a little underpowered, the boys more than made up for it with ‘Toreadors’ at the end of the show once they’d got into their stride. 

Senator Vanders and his daughter Lucille were excellently drawn by Lawrence Whittaker and Hayley Watson-Reid. Lawrence didn’t let a bit of a croaky throat get in the way of his performance and grumbled and growled his way through the show quite magnificently! Hayley gave a great performance as Lucille, really bringing the character to life with confidence and ‘O Foolish Moon’ was the musical highlight of the show for me. A close rival for the top spot musically speaking was the sequence of the ‘Ritual of the Rising Sun’ with Linda Sharples leading the ensemble as the High Priestess. The odd bum note here or there was excused by the overall display in what was an impressive section at the Aztec temple. Exploding onto the stage como un petardo with his every appearance was Mendoza, the revolutionary nitwit, played with blustering hilarity by Robin Reid. Robin’s performance - bordering on the surreal for most of the show - was a real highlight and ranks alongside his many previous vivid stage creations. Rounding off the principal line-up, Marina Murray and Elaine Morris did a great job of leading the chorus of fiery Mexican senoritas and the stage fairly teemed with life throughout the evening. 

The series of familiar tunes which peppered the show made for a fun and slightly exotic musical display. The small band brought life to the music (for the most part) and even if some of the songs’ lyrics were less than inspired - and often, shoehorned into the tunes in a rather ungainly fashion - there were several musical highlights for me. ‘Love, Stay in my Heart’ was very well done; the Aztec ritual was an impressive choral display; ‘O Foolish Moon’ sounded like G&S filtered through Gershwin and was a lovely song; ‘Tango for Two’ was a very jolly number in the hands of Christine Chadwick and Robert Riley, and ‘La Cucaracha’ spiralled off into lunacy most agreeably, thanks in no small part to Robin’s mind-bendingly outré dancing skills! The big chorus numbers were well drilled, colourful and - if occasionally a little long-winded - managed never to outstay their welcome. Some of the wordier songs might have benefitted from certain chorus members putting in a little more practise on mastering the tongue twisting lyrics but there were no real disasters. Costumes were bright, colourful and wholly appropriate throughout and a credit to the wardrobe team: well done ladies. Sets were good, created a suitable mood and suited the stage very very well; as always at St Cuthbert’s, chorus movement was well fitted to the stage space; it was a treat to see the younger members of the cast given their moments of glory throughout the show, particularly in those lively Latin numbers. It’s always a pleasure to see how hard the technical and production teams work to bring a show to life on stage at the community hall and draw the audience in so comprehensively to the musical world which is conjured up. Sound quality was first rate and not a note or a word was missed all evening: something which other amateur societies would do well to learn from. 

The story of this whimsical little musical need not concern us here dear reader (bandits, a missing piece of paper, farcical bedroom hopping, the threat of revolution and a happy ending about sums it up) but it afforded a most entertaining night out at the theatre. This production made a virtue of the lighthearted charm of the piece and everyone on stage really gave of their best all evening, clearly having a great time. John McNabb’s evil police chief was a great creation, managing to suggest a real villain without tipping over into pantomime; Robin’s Mendoza thrilled with comical  malapropisms piled upon frantic misunderstandings; some (by no means all!) of the musical numbers were refreshingly pleasant, in some cases surprisingly so (one thinks of ‘O Foolish Moon’ for example); Ramon and Raquelita’s romance was well realised by Elliott and Vicki and the threat to the relationship from Lucille’s advances was well handled too: amusing without being thoughtless and poignant without being too serious. Having recently revisited Dirk Bogarde’s outrageous turn as a Mexican bandit in the film ‘The Singer, Not the Song’ I would advise Elliott to wear tight black leather trousers should he ever revisit the role of Ramon: it certainly worked for Dirk. Just a thought... 

The team at St Cuthbert’s always pull out all the stops to bring something to the stage which is full of heart and has a real feeling of team spirit. The warmth and sense of real enjoyment which flows from the stage is heartening and ‘Viva Mexico!’ was no exception. The evening was full of fun and the theatrical experience was obviously much appreciated by a large and very satisfied audience. There is always a real sense of community spirit at St Cuthbert’s and both Stuart and myself send our thanks  as always for a very warm welcome. ‘Hello Dolly’ is next I believe and it will be interesting to see how St Cuthbert’s bring this big broadway blockbuster to the stage. All the best with your future endeavours and keep up the good work! Ay Caramba!