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La Cava is the first of the current crop of musicals exploding onto the London stage which could be destined for great things. A musical set in the eighth century at a time when from North Africa there was a Moorish threat of invasion to Spain may sound an unlikely cocktail for success, but the men from LA, Laurence O'Keefe and John Claflin, have created a show that is fresh and imaginative. It's based on Dana Broccoli's book and n amed, not for the sparkling wine, but for the Spanish for a scarlet woman. It is an effervescent mix of stars with sex appeal, original choreography, sweet music, tongue in cheek lyrics and high drama.
Based partially on fact and partially on legend, the story centers on Florinda Espatorias, the feisty daughter of a Spanish general who is governor of the colony of Ceuta in North Africa. While Ceuta is under threat from a Moorish invasion, Florinda is sent to Toledo, Spain to the court of King Roderic where she is to be schooled in the womanly arts.
This means that she must take her leave of her childhood sweetheart, Somal, a Moor.
In Toledo, Roderic is shunning his queen, Exilona, after her adultery during his long absence while leading his army. Florinda, dissatisfied at lessons in tapestry, tries to escape the castle and meets Roderic without realising that he is the king. Later, Roderic kills Somal thinking he is an invading Moorish soldier. Florinda is devastated. Spurred on by Agon, Exilona's vengeful servant, she sends word to her father that she has been raped by Roderic (later she goes to his bedchamber to back up her accusation). Over time she actually does fall in love with Roderic and asks Ezzak Mendez, a Jew, to tell her father that she was not dishonoured. However, since the message is never delivered because Ezzak is killed by the Archbishop's men Florinda's father asks for the help of the Moorish army to avenge his daughter. Invasion and wars follow.
Laurence O'Keefe's music reminded me of the style of Les Miserables but with fewer marches, more ballads, plus dramatic battle sequences. I'm not surprised that John Cameron is involved in the orchestration of both musicals. The lyrics from John Claflin merit further amused study. In the schoolroom as the girls try to glean what marriage will be like, "Will it be soft? Probably not/Men are sticky and hot/…. He was young/ His mind was as quick as his tongue/ What if he's cruel, vicious and insane?/Lie back and think of Spain!"
Steven Dexter's direction moves us effortlessly as we cope with the political and religious complexities of Christian Goths, Moors and Jews.
The creative team behind La Cava also deserves much admiration: a flexible and imposing set of tall wooden walls adapts to give tall, narrow perpendicular windows or round Moorish arches or small windows lit by flaming torches . . . painted tapestries are lowered to give the feel of a medieval hall with Gothic hangings . . . billowing sails and silk flags unfurl to change the scene. . . in the battle scenes the camps of opposing forces revolve with a simple canopied tent but the visual highlight of the evening for me was the battle field. Figures with upraised swords are silhouetted against the smoke and a red drape falls to the floor, symbolic of a field of blood and the lighting too bathes the stage in red.
Oliver Tobias as Roderic, a veteran of the London cast of Hair now greying but, like old wine, improving with age, has a sweet voice. Occasionally he almost speaks his songs but this works well too. Julie-Alanah Brighten, last seen as Beauty in Beauty and the Beast mesmerizes with her mellifluous singing voice never faltering -- and she can act. Together this very handsome pair exude a believable sexual attraction. Brought together by Florinda's hate of school life and Roderic's loneliness, they sing "Life is Worth Living". Marilyn Cutts as the isolated queen movingly renders the title song about her position as a disgraced woman which has implications too for Florinda as the King's mistress. Paul Keating is outstanding as her page, devoted and devious with a splendid voice as he plots against the King.
In the school room the choreographer has confined the girls to tight and stylised arm movements, as they sing of sewing and reading in "Within These Walls". By contrast, the bazaar scene starts with a woman with a belly dance feel to the choreographic moves and slowly all the traders join in, dancing with beautiful silks, creating the excitement and bustle of the bazaar. The Moorish pre battle dances are especially impressive, as the dancers turbaned and masked, in dark purple and blues and blacks dance to throbbing drumming music with great dramatic effect and lighting effects.
I think I'll book to take my family - so, yes, I really liked La Cava. If you'd like to sample some of the music from the show, go to their website at:
Music by Laurence O'Keefe and Stephen Keeling
Lyrics by John Claflin and Laurence O'Keefe
Book by Dana Broccoli
Directed by Steven Dexter
Starring: Oliver Tobias, Julie-Alanah Brighten, Paul Keating
With: David Bardsley, Marilyn Cutts, Patrick Romer, Joshua Bancel, Louisa McCarthy, Chris Andrew Mellon, Daniel Redmond, Richard woodford, Luke Evans, Claire Massie, Caroline Bagnall, Colette Bibby, Anna Blake, Dawn Buckland, Steve Elias, Howard Ellis, Julian Essex-Spurrier, Ben Forster, Jordi Guitart, Katie Leeming, Michelle Lukes, Roberto Saraceno, Michael Small, Frank Thompson, Andrew Wright
Additional Music: Stephen Keeling
Musical Supervision and Orchestrations: John Cameron
Original Orchestrations: Laurence O'Keefe and David de Palo
Musical Director: Michael Haslam
Choreographer: Mitch Sebastian
Set Design: Francis O'Connor
Costume Designer: Paul Clarke
Lighting Design: Chris Ellis
Sound Design: Clement Rawling
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with an interval
Zollo Productions Inc/Florinda Co. Ilc
Victoria Palace,Victoria Sreet, London SW1 (Victoria Mainline Station and Tube)
Box Office: 020 7834 1317
Booking to 2nd September 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th June 2000 performance at the Victoria Palace, London SW1