THE GUARDIAN – THE OBSERVER
By Luke Jennings.
Great dance theatre doesn’t come about by accident. It’s born of constant experiment, reassessment and refinement. Some Like It Hip Hop was written, choreographed and directed by Kate Prince as a follow-up to her phenomenally successful Into the Hoods, which opened in the West End in 2008. The new show is Prince’s take on Billy Wilder’s 1959 film comedy Some Like It Hot, and tells the story of Jo-Jo (Lizzie Gough) and Kerri (Teneisha Bonner), who drag up as men to get work in a dystopian city in which books are banned and women permitted only the most menial of jobs.
When the piece opened for a short season last October, its strengths were immediately apparent. Prince’s choreography scintillated, DJ Walde and Josh Cohen’s score was full of wit and snap, and a strong cast led by Gough, Bonner and Tommy Franzén carried audiences with them from curtain-up. But there were structural flaws. The exposition was unclear, the plotting over-elaborate and the characterisation at times unsubtle. After a limited season it was back to the drawing board.
Eleven months later Prince has got it dead right. The show works at every level, as satire, parable and romcom, and from the first appearance of Ross Green’s wry narrator unfolds with luxurious, rapid-fire precision. Gough, with her hornrims and blonde bangs, projects an eager, goofball charm, and Bonner, who can lay serious claim to the title of hip-hop dance’s hottest female star, is all slinky ripple. Once inside the city and dressed as men – hilariously unlikely men, it has to be said – the pair acquire a pseudo-masculine swagger that ruthlessly sends up the unreconstructed crotch-scratching, cigar-chomping machismo they encounter.
In numbers such as It’s a Man’s World and The Rules of Seduction it becomes clear that part of Prince’s intention is to use humour to send up some of the negative attitudes still prevalent in the hip-hop world. As she says, she’s “strongly against misogynistic lyrics, homophobia, violence and materialism”. So the pleasures of book-learning are extolled, the oppressive get their comeuppance and sexism and arrogance get a firm boot in the seat of the pants. A comically ambiguous scene in which Natasha Gooden’s Oprah flirtatiously pursues Kerri in her male guise reminds us of the debt owed by Wilder’s film to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
What sets Prince apart from other hip-hop choreographers is the genius with which she uses the idiom to define character. So while Duwane Taylor’s tyrannical Governor krumps with quicksilver speed while rooted to the spot, a study in internal contradiction, Franzén’s sweet-natured Simeon is in constant, irrepressible motion. Technically this is a very strong cast indeed – Robert Anker’s barrel-rolling flips had the audience gasping in disbelief, and Shaun Smith’s irrepressible Sudsy seemed to be made of rubber – but in the end it’s Franzén’s wit and timing that carry the day. He has the insouciance and the throwaway musicality of a latterday Astaire and a self-deprecating warmth that carries the audience with him every step of the way.
By Graham Watts
Reviewed: 25 September
It’s hard to imagine a shape or movement of the human body that did not cycle at top speed through the well-toned physiques of the ultra-enthusiastic cast of Zoonation’s Some Like It Hip Hop at Tuesday night’s performance. The show is now in revival at the Peacock Theatre after a successful run last year. On one level it’s a rather puzzling creation; a sort of amalgamation of a musical fable and a contemporary version of a dance revue, but it basically boils down to an excuse for a bunch of prodigiously talented young dancers to show off their breakin’, b-boyin’, street, pop music video, acrobatic ambitions. And this they do with enough energy to power a small city for at least a week.
Some Like It Hip Hop is definitely a dance extravaganza first and a book musical second. Although many of the songs are real toe-tappers, they sound suspiciously similar to the pop chart toppers of recent years, and the story, well, I kept getting confused. The story purports to be a cross between Some Like It Hot, the Marilyn Monroe classic directed by Billy Wilder, and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but despite some undercover cross dressing, thematically I didn’t see all that much of either. It seems that the governor of a kind of post-industrial fairy tale city got grumpy one day and in a move of seriously totalitarian megalomania extinguished the sun, burned all the books and banished all the women in his jurisdiction to either exile or humiliating subservience to the men folk.
The evil consequences of this were narrated by an everyman figure (Ross Green), and expressed through angrily executed, snappy breakdance moves and a sort of swiftly angular sign language reminiscent of voguing. But underdogs abound in this cartoon dystopia and we are soon introduced to a gaggle of plucky protagonists who both defy and perpetuate stereotypes as they boldly protest the regime and dance their way into getting kicked out of the city, dance their way back in again, and then do it again. It seems that to like books and be smart you must wear a cardigan and thick-rimmed glasses, and as a girl you might be plenty clever and gutsy but still go all dumb and gooey when a good looking fella comes along. Serious social commentary this is not.
But in an interview in the programme, Zoonation leader and creator of Some Like It Hip Hop, Kate Prince says that entertaining her audience is her number one priority, and this she surely did with the help of her exuberant proteges. The individual and group numbers were so dense with lightning fast movement that the dancers would have seemed a blur had they not been nailing right on the head and with exacting precision, every shape and tricky combination. The whole group is remarkable for this, but Tommy Franzen of So You Think You Can Dance fame, is such a magnetic performer that he nearly stole the show right out from underneath the rest of the crew. Even in the big group numbers he shone as though he was veritably lit up from within, making it almost impossible to watch anyone else. I don’t know what he has for breakfast but we should all be on it.
There seemed no other option but to stand up during the protracted and bubbly curtain call, and the encores just kept coming as audience members danced out into the aisles and the cast all aptly sang the phrase “Don’t let me hear you say you can’t dance!” on joyful repeat. In fact not dancing was practically impossible, so infectious was their energy. I found myself grinning and bouncing, the ten-year-old friend I was with was gleefully drumming the air with invisible drumsticks, and both of us danced down the aisle and out into the street. In short, don’t go to Some Like It Hip Hop for the story or a critique of social injustice; you’ll be disappointed. But the feel-good factor and the super fly dancing, are well worth the price of admission.
THE TELEGRAPH – SEVEN MAGAZINE
5 stars by Louise Levene
Some Like It Hip Hop at the Peacock Theatre, Sadler’s Wells Photo: Simon Prince
Some Like it Hip Hop is a new cross-dressed “dansical” from ZooNation (the company behind Into the Hoods), and a preview run in the Midlands meant that this terrific musical comedy hit the West End in fine shape.
Despite the catchy title, Some Like it Hip Hop is not a danced version of the 1959 movie, although Billy Wilder’s central theme – changing sex to find work – is maintained. Kate Prince’s story is set in a brutish, bookless men-only world (an earnest nod here to the misogyny found in hip hop and rap music) so that our two heroines (Teneisha Bonner and Lizzie Gough) must don suits, moustaches and blokey mannerisms before anyone will take them seriously.
If the Blood Brothers-style running commentary (delivered by Tachia Newall) lacks the textual sophistication of Rennie Harris’s Rome and Jewels, this is more than made up for by superb musical direction. DJ Walde and Josh Cohen’s smooth mix of tape and live voice includes several show-stopping original songs, delivered with soul by Elliotte Williams-N’Dure and Sheree Dubois.
Ben Stone’s modular set makes for seamless transformations, while Johanna Town’s virtuoso lighting guides us around the multi-level stage so that not a trick is missed. The penultimate number, Wilson Atie’s Light it Up, earned the usual oohs and aahs for the choreographic firework display, with Tommy Franzen looking like Jell-O on springs.
4 stars by Debra Craine
Tommy Franzen busts some moves in Some Like It Hip Hop (Marilyn Kingwill)
When ZooNation unveiled Into the Hoods six years ago no one could have predicted how successful its hip-hop reworking of a Sondheim musical would become. With Some Like It Hip Hop, a reworking of an iconic film, it’s different. We know this one’s a winner.
Kate Prince writes, directs and choreographs, as she did with Into the Hoods. Again, this is family-friendly light entertainment with a positive message, highly likeable characters and plenty of spectacular dance. But here Prince’s choreography (co-credit to Tommy Franzén and Carrie-Anne Ingrouille) moves up a notch. Aside from the wow factor fundamental to hip-hop — upside-down balances, backflips, fierce locking, punchy, thrusting articulation and cossack kicks — the movement has a real flair for weaving character into its fabric.
The story, told in charming rhymes and lyrics, is a simple parable. The Governor, grieving for his dead wife, is consumed by darkness and takes it out on the inhabitants of his city. He captures the Sun and hides it in a box, thus plunging the city into perpetual gloom, while he bans books and institutionalises the subservience of the female sex. Two brave women (in a neat reversal of Some Like It Hot’s gender casting) decide that the only way they will make it in this world is to pretend to be men. Much hilarity and romantic confusion follow. Finally come revolution and enlightenment. Harmony is restored, families are reunited, books are back and love finds a way. It’s zany and zippy, hilarious and heartwarming.
Ben Stones’s sets are witty and clever. Ryan Chappell’s costumes are deliriously old-fashioned. DJ Walde and Josh Cohen’s R’n’B music has some fine moments. The show is probably about 15 minutes too long, but the performances are terrific. Lizzie Gough and Teneisha Bonner are plucky and engaging as the female leads; Duwane Taylor’s Governor is impressive, even touching. Franzén, as the nerdy hero Simeon (pictured), is astonishing. A dancer of superhuman agility and strength, he is also gifted with a genius for comedy. The fact that he looks like Ronnie Corbett is surely intentional.
CLOUD DANCE FESTIVAL
5 stars by Kelly Crocker
My word, it is with disbelief that the following words are written. Everybody who visits the Peacock Theatre within the next couple of weeks will without a doubt agree that they like it hip hop, even if they didn’t do so before. ZooNation Dance Company are due some serious thanking and kissing of feet for bringing Some Like It Hip Hop to life. Now, it may sound like a bit of light-hearted banter, but in all seriousness there are no words that can justify this phenomenon. Five stars are frustratingly just not enough, resulting in this to be a very hard piece to write; if possible, Some Like It Hip Hop is too good.
Following in its predecessor Into the Hoods’ footsteps, hip hop and theatre get on like a house on fire… with fireworks, putting most musicals to shame. The fact that there were some amplification issues is irrelevant as music, set and design were utterly on point, entailing zero weak spots. This show deserves a future more than any other so that any picky, minor problems can be dusted off; they are of little importance where this show is concerned. Assumptions may lead to a belief that shows of this nature can run the risk of being slightly cheesy, however, ZooNation failed to embarrass themselves. Some Like It Hip Hop is proof that sheer magic occurs when the importance of hip hop is acknowledged by theatre, especially when it is of as gobsmacking quality as this. Evidently, dance should not be struggling in today’s society as Kate Prince’s creation just goes to show.
The surprisingly heart-capturing story follows an oppressive governor who has locked in the city and those who are worthy, while the rejected remain outside in the cold. He runs a pretty tight ‘no books allowed’ ship where everyone must prove themselves fit and women are put in their place. When Jo-Jo Jameson, Kerri Kimbalayo along with the lovable Sudsy Partridge endure a slip-up, they are banished, much to their dismay. However, an opportunity soon arises to enter back into the city, but only for men. The two ladies are of course struck by an idea, and comically man themselves up (moustaches and all) to join the adorable, book-loving Simeon Sun. It must be noted just how side-splittingly funny this show is throughout, and it comes with all the perks of a good story. Theatrically, the whole thing is accurately brilliant. With the help of some exquisite on-stage singers plus the genius that is DJ Walde, the accompaniment is enough to make you purchase the soundtrack without hesitation, and Ben Stones’ set design is superbly unique. Choreographically? Just wow. The hip hop language these bodies execute is sublime and fits right into the theatre as though it has belonged there since Day One. The choreography lacks any imperfection and is well and truly up to date, although we are treated with much delight to a rendition of ‘The Carlton’ in the infamous seduction scene. Each and every scene proves to be the best scene: an impossible treat danced out before our eyes.
The whole plot is narrated by the multi-talented Tachia Newall who encourages the entertainment that seems impossible to beat. Shaun Smith’s Sudsy is infectious, and along with Natasha Gooden who plays the beautiful daughter of the governor, they are both out of this world in regards to star quality. And that goes to every performer involved. Despite the existence of your typical leading roles, each star steps up and shines, equally overflowing with talent within their own expertise. Duwane Taylor’s empowering popping and locking vibrates straight through your heart, teaming up nicely with Teneisha Bonner, an astonishingly memorable dancer, not to mention actress. Lizzie Gough makes up one half of our simply perfect leading couple, reminding us why we fell in love with her So You Think You Can Dance appearances. And the other half is the unbelievable Tommy Franzén. While watching this artist at work, the thought that there is only one of him becomes particularly prominent, realising just how unreal this talent is. Alongside the rest of the cast, each individual is in a league of their own, and together have created something quite extraordinary.
It is with great shame that the justice this piece of theatre deserves cannot be written into words. No matter how familiar you are with hip hop, an awe-stricken (not to mention wild) audience is what you get, and the wonder that such a thing exists. Some Like It Hip Hop, I salute you as arguably one of the greatest theatrical experiences alive. May you live on, or there’ll undoubtedly be hell to pay!
4 stars by Judith Mackrell
Classic twist … Some Like It Hip Hop. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
If there was any doubt that hip-hop had finally grown out of the street and into the theatre, then Kate Prince‘s new production dispels it. Technically, Some Like It Hip Hop may be a little rough around the edges, but it has all the pace, ambition and talent of a West End show.
New stories for dance theatre are hard to find, especially ones suitable for a family audience. Prince, however, has gone to the best. Her plot is a twist on the classic Billy Wilder movie, Some Like It Hot, but it also draws on Shakespearean comedy for its themes of mistaken identity, gender disguise, lost daughters, and rulers in crisis.
Deploying a witty, insouciant mix of rhyming couplets and rap, Tachia Newall as Narrator tells the story of a Governor whose grief at the death of his wife brings dark days to his subjects: books are banned, work is regimented and women consigned to domestic slavery. Two rebellious young women disguise themselves as men (the Wilder movie in reverse), and much of the comedy arises from their glee in sending up their male masters, strutting in suits and – with a pointed dig at hip-hop machismo – clutching narcissistically at their crotches.
Other rebels join the cause, including the bookworm and all-round softie Simeon Sun, a role that allows Tommy Franzen to show off his stellar abilities as dancer and actor, layering dapper jazz rhythms and comic clowning into the hip-hop mix. Franzen is credited with some of the choreography, which impressively pushes hip-hop to a variety of narrative purposes: sharp, robotic routines for the oppressed workers, slow, mournful moves for the citizens-in-exile, and a mother of all dance battles when the rebels turn on their masters using an onslaught of headspins, bodyflips and vaulting high-kicks.
The choreographic range is reflected in the music: a layering of recorded sound and some terrific live singing that embraces R&B, beatboxing, soul and old-fashioned schmaltz. It’s a real shame that the sound system fails the cast in places, with some of the vocals barely audible over ramped-up electronic beats. The production’s other weakness is its length: there’s a good 15 minutes of redundant material. But this is still a belter of a show, performed by a cast whose vivid, gutsy variety of shape, size, colour and stage background ensures that even when hip-hop moves into the theatre, they keep it real.
THE EVENING STANDARD
3 stars by Clifford Bishop
Kate Prince – lyricist, librettist, choreographer, artistic director of ZooNation and hip hop ambassador to the West End – clearly has a lot on her mind.
Intolerance, library closures and the need for street culture to embrace more formal education are only some of the issues bubbling under this ungainly parable about an embittered ruler (Duwane Taylor) who steals the sun and turns his city into a woman-oppressing fortress where love and books are banned.
Such a behemoth should be impossible to animate but with the help of an always serviceable and occasionally inspiring R&B score the cast brings it vibrantly to life. Tommy Franzén is irrepressible as a nerdy, book-smuggling Clark Kent who doesn’t have to ditch the specs to be a superman. He provides a dazzling series of caterpillars, flips, flairs and cossack kicks to demonstrate, as the accompanying song claims, his “175 IQ”.
At the other end of the happy spectrum, Taylor’s fierce, angry locking represents a body whose own neurons are trying to Taser it into submission.
And Teneisha Bonner, as one of two women who disguise themselves as men to infiltrate the city, proves to be his mushy but choreographically brilliant redemption, by throwing his own moves back at him, softened, feminised and thus stronger. Then it all ends in a party. Despite the shaky structure, Some Like it Hip Hop looks sure to be a massive hit.
by Graham Watts
The world of entertainment is paved with ‘second album syndrome’ or the curse of a second project failure; whether it is the follow-up music album, a second novel or the second series of a hit TV show, repeating one’s own debut success is the hardest act to follow. And this was the task for Kate Prince and her ZooNation Dance Company, whose first full-length work, Into the Hoods, was a runaway success over several seasons in many locations from separate stints at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to two long runs in the West End.
Prince hit the right button to start strongly by assembling an exceptional cast for Some Like It Hip Hop, including a trio of the most watchable dancers around in Tommy Franzén, Lizzie Gough and Teneisha Bonner. A project with these three at the performing helm was never likely to fail. Franzén, already one of Britain’s best dance performers in any style, has added a few spectacular tricks to his repertoire, which added to his innate musicality and casual control in the central role of Simeon Sun, have taken him on to an even higher plane of dance excellence. He has a significant chemistry with love-interest Gough (both finalists from the inaugural British Season of So You Think You Can Dance on BBC1) and their duet at the beginning of the second act clearly elevated the performance energy. Gough is that rare perfomer who manages to project sex appeal without trying and is perhaps all the more vivacious because of her demureness – I’ve definitely never seen a more attractive performer wearing cycling shorts, knee bandages, thick glasses, a man’s wig and facial hair. Her dance style does not depend upon explosive tricks but on a unique blend of popping, locking and jazz styles, threaded through with the flexibility and balance that can only be achieved through a serious dollop of yoga. Bonner is the only one of the three with history in ZooNation, having created and played the key role of Spinderella in Into the Hoods for several years. She has a superb all-around street style and a magnificent athletic physique (with abs to die for!); although she certainly doesn’t suit a thick moustache!
Though it would be easy to imagine Some Like It Hip Hop to be a spoof on the famous Billy Wilder film (Some Like It Hot) – with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon – the only main reference is in the cross-dressing of the two leads, though here it is gender-swapping in reverse. In the film, Curtis and Lemmon become members of an all-woman band to escape the attentions of the mob, after unwittingly witnessing something akin to the Valentine’s Day massacre; and here, Gough and Bonner dress as men to get back into a city from which they have been expelled after breaking the “no women allowed” rules of “The Governor” (a suitably imposing cameo by Duwane Taylor).
The story itself is often hard to follow and, in particular, the opening sequences are cluttered and fussy, with regular set movements and the rat-a-tat introduction of too many characters. None of this was helped by some peripheral technical problems with the Narrator’s microphone, which made some words unintelligible to the audience in the Dress Circle. This was a pity because actor, Tachia Newall, had considerable charisma when we could hear his whole sentences. However, all quibbles are brushed aside when the dancing gets going in earnest and the second act is thankfully free of the narrative clutter that clogged up the early scenes. The original music by DJ Walde and Josh Cohen (with lyrics by Prince herself) was a little hit and miss although I suspect that the tunes will grow on me over time. Sherona Knight was certainly a songstress to take note of, dominating the stage whenever she was performing.
Any concerns about the slow start are long forgotten by the time of a rousing gospel-style finale, which follows on from a last, brief dance cameo in the spotlight from the entire cast, including the non-dance crew. At the end, everyone is lined up at the front of the stage and with little need of encouragement it has the entire audience on its feet for an encore. Just as with Into The Hoods, Prince and her team know how to send an audience home happy and in doing so she has done more than enough to wipe out any ‘second album syndrome’ .
By Luke Jennings
‘Destined to be a smash-hit’: Kate Prince’s Some Like It Hip Hop. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
When Into the Hoods opened at the Novello theatre in 2008, it was the West End’s first hip-hop show and it would mark the evolution of British hip-hop from a street form into a fully realised theatrical language. The piece was choreographed and directed by Kate Prince, and last Tuesday she launched her new show, Some Like It Hip Hop. Like its predecessor it unites a smart and appealing storyline with truly fabulous dancing. The line-up is led by Tommy Franzén and Lizzie Gough from BBC1’s So You Think You Can Dance, and strength in depth is provided by Teneisha Bonner, Duwane Taylor and other luminaries of the UK hip-hop scene.
The story tells of a city whose governor (Taylor), unbalanced by the loss of his wife, has locked the community into a repressive regime where books are banned, women confined to menial tasks and offenders banished to the chill desolation outside the city. The first to suffer this fate is the free-spirited Sudsy, danced by Shaun Smith, and he’s swiftly followed by Kerri (Bonner) and Jo-Jo (Gough). The only way back into the city is via one of the work details recruited from the ranks of the rejects, but as only men are required, Kerri and Jo-Jo have to drag up in wigs, moustaches and suits.
Cue much confusion and romantic cross-purpose. Jo-Jo falls for Simeon (Franzén), who is also recruited for the work party but cannot see beyond her male get-up, and Kerri finds herself simultaneously favoured as an up-and-coming young chap by the governor and lustily pursued by Oprah (Natasha Gooden), his long-lost daughter. Simeon, meanwhile, is persuaded into falling for Jo-Jo in the launderette, where she can safely be her female self, and both she and Kerri are unmasked as women in a classic reveal, unleashing first chaos and then a suitably redemptive conclusion.
Dance-wise, there’s not a weak moment. Frantzén is supremely good, combining an effortless technique with highly sophisticated musical phrasing. In his hands, DJ Walde’s rapid-fire score becomes infinitely pliant: something to have fun with and bend to his own idiosyncratic ends. In owlish specs and nerdy sweater, Franzén is an unlikely romantic lead but he works the look with great wit, just as Gough does with her hornrims and Sandra Dee bangs.
Taylor, meanwhile, is a magisterial governor, expressing his fractured psyche though quiveringly tense locking and popping routines. But perhaps the most finely shaded performance is Smith’s. As the hapless, sweet-natured Sudsy he combines cutting-edge moves with a doleful anxiety to please which recalls Norman Wisdom and the greats of music-hall clowning.
The piece looks good. Ben Stones’s steampunk designs give a grim, dystopian feel, and Prince’s choreography hits the mark every time. Not only as display but as a vehicle for emotion. There’s a duet for Bonner and Gooden which is just sensual enough to give their relationship an ambiguous edge, and in a later trio for Smith, Gough and Bonner, Prince’s filmic montage of angled limbs and liquid upper-body moves is perfectly expressive of their individual dilemmas.
Inevitably there are flaws. The piece opens with an exposition by a narrator which is rendered near inaudible by poor amplification. The first half seems at once over-plotted and over-simplistic: there are, for example, no unsympathetic female characters, and the overbearing masculine behaviour could be much more subtly drawn. There are structural problems raised by the Oprah subplot, which is central to the resolution but encountered comparatively late in the piece, and in consequence has a tacked-on feel.
And given the show’s references to Billy Wilder’s 1959 film Some Like It Hot, which itself references Shakespearean comedy, we are led to expect a more comprehensive romantic pairing-off than is delivered. Jo-Jo and Simeon are an established item some time before the end, and Kerri, in an echo of Twelfth Night‘s Viola and Duke Orsino, appears destined for the governor, although this is not especially clearly signalled. Oprah, Sudsy and the others, meanwhile, are left out on a limb, love-wise.
But these are early days. Into the Hoods continued to evolve long after its 2006 debut in this theatre, and Some Like It Hip Hop is surely destined for the same smash-hit status.