“It’s New Year’s Eve and hopes are high, dance one year in, kiss one goodbye” according to Sunset Boulevard. And as I prepare to kiss 2012 goodbye, now seems as good a time as any to look back at some of the theatrical highs and lows of the past year, some of which I haven’t had opportunity of featuring on Musicast till now, and to look forward to some of the openings already announced for 2013. Although 2012 has been a bit of a mixed year, with a lack of big London openings especially over the Olympic Games period, there has nevertheless been much to enjoy both in the West End and on the Fringe, as well as several superlative productions at various regional theatres (especially Leicester and Sheffield) and a number of tours of note.

2012 got off to a flying start when I attended the final night of Jonathan Munby’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield (reviewed on this site). Starring Sheffield Theatres’ artistic director Daniel Evans in the lead role of Bobby, this was a production of great integrity and it’s a real shame that it didn’t transfer elsewhere. As Evans said at the time, it was ‘made for Sheffield’ and despite the long journey up north, was worth every moment. Their current Christmas musical My Fair Lady (directed by Evans and starring Dominic West and Carly Bawden) has been widely acclaimed and is a now sell-out success, though as always it remains to be seen if a transfer will follow. The message must surely be that one shouldn’t wait for a transfer from a faraway regional theatre into the West End as no matter how acclaimed a show is, a transfer doesn’t automatically follow. This was also the case with the superb Spring production of Sondheim and Styne’s Gypsy at Leicester Curve, directed by Paul Kerryson and starring Caroline O’Connor. O’Connor has become somewhat of a Sondheim specialist in recent years, playing Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Phyllis in Follies and Sara Jane Moore in Assassins in international productions during the last two years alone. However, the cherry on the Sondheim cake was her portrayal of the showbiz mother from hell, conniving opportunist Mama Rose, with Kerryson emphasising the family drama of the piece and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt giving a multi-layered performance in the role of Gypsy Rose Lee, from repression to stardom. The Leicester Gypsy failed to transfer into the West End, although rumour has it that Imelda Staunton will play Mama Rose in a new London production during 2013. Staunton’s much acclaimed run as Mrs Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (a transfer from Chichester), alongside an almost unrecognisable Michael Ball as the killer barber, finished its acclaimed run at the Adelphi Theatre in September.

Fringe performances I saw at the beginning of the year were rather disappointing, with an overly used concept enforced on Pippin at the Menier Chocolate Factory, albeit with some strong performances from the ever reliable Matt Rawle, and relative newcomer Harry Hepple in the title role (he’s currently in Privates on Parade at the Noel Coward Theatre). Frances Ruffelle (who played Pippin’s trendy mother) is also heading to Leicester soon to appear as Piaf at the Curve. Also After The Turn at the Courtyard Theatre was just too rocky for my taste, and although there were fine performances from London regulars such as Ashleigh Gray and Stevie Webb, the storytelling here lacked clarity in parts with further development needed in order for the unusual story to shine through.

In the West End itself, a superb second cast of Ghost and a stylish production of Top Hat were reviewed on the site, the latter joining Chichester’s Singin in the Rain as the West End’s two classic dance shows of the year. Both shows starred a Strallen too, with Summer leading Top Hat and Scarlett putting in a charming performance in Singin in the Rain, alongside Adam Cooper and Daniel Crossley. Now cast as Cassie in the forthcoming production of A Chorus Line at the London Palladium (I can’t wait!), Scarlett will apparently finish Singin on a Saturday and open in A Chorus Line the following Monday. That’s a true dancer for you.

The summer production of Soho Cinders at, appropriately enough, the Soho Theatre, was well received although didn’t receive the attention that it truly deserved. A new musical from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, Soho Cinders had been in development for some years and was staged in a one-off concert version in the West End in October 2011, which was released on CD. It was wonderful to see it fully realised on the Soho Theatre stage – and to see a brand new musical with a superlative and tuneful score, strong performances and a story and topic that were both modern and engaging. Here’s hoping it returns to London for a second season during 2013.

A few days in New York during the summer gave me the opportunity of catching up on some Broadway shows, starting with Michael Grandage’s production of Evita. Having seen the show five years earlier in London, with the same leading lady, Elena Roger, I was unexpectedly impressed with how well the story was told in the Broadway production. It was a much tighter and more coherent production than I remembered seeing in London, and watching it from the mezzanine (the circle) rather than the stalls as I did in London, meant that the storytelling through the dancing was much clearer too. Elena Roger has always tended to divide critics as she is the first Argentinean lady to play Eva Peron, and Tim Rice’s speedily sung lyrics are sometimes inevitably rushed and slightly unclear to the unfamiliar ear due to her accent. However, I believe that her performance has deepened since London and that her diction has improved too – there are still moments where there is a lack of clarity, but one forgives her these due to the integrity and grit she naturally brings to the role. The journey she makes as Evita through the evening is quite incredible, and it’s a must-see if you’re in New York over the next few weeks before the production closes at the end of January. I didn’t get to see Ricky Martin opposite Roger as Che, as I was in town during Martin’s summer vacation, but understudy Max von Essen could not be faulted, and Michael Cerveris as Peron was powerful too.

During my remaining time in New York, I also got to see Newsies, the new Disney musical, based on an earlier film. Full of impressive dance routines, Newsies is set against a fairly unlikely plot of a newsboys strike, when the boys delivering newspapers in New York city went on strike against the oppression of their employers at the major newspapers. Suffice it to say that the show contains some quite memorable songs (including one previously known to me from Nathan Martin’s London cabarets, ‘Sante Fe’), has a secondary love story and that everything works out okay by the end. When I saw Newsies, it was at that point still starring Jeremy Jordan, who’s since left the (still ongoing) production to star in the new series of Smash, which hits UK screens in the spring. Newsies itself is mooted for a West End transfer in 2013/14 although it remains to be seen whether this American story will find success over here – it certainly went down well with the American kids at the matinee I attended anyhow.

Sondheim’s Into the Woods on a summer evening in Central Park (at the Delacorte Theater), proved to be a disappointment of this year’s New York trip. Based on the production seen in London’s Regent Park two and a half years ago, this was ‘reconceived’ for a New York audience, with an impressive cast list featuring Broadway stalwart Donna Murphy as the Witch, Chip Zien (the original Baker) as the Old Man and film star Amy Adams as the Baker’s Wife. It was truly atmospheric watching this production as the sun set on Central Park on a warm summer’s evening, and there is no doubting the sheer inventiveness of this Timothy Sheader/Liam Steel production, with the beanstalk appearing with cast holding green umbrellas on the staircase of an expansive set and the (Glenn Close voiced) Giant appearing magically at the top of the trees amongst many visual highlights. However, there was little heart to this production, with the more adult themes of mortality and responsibility quickly passed over by a cast dressed in an overly contemporary style. I got a bit lost in those woods that evening and think I’ll stick to the Digital Theatre recording of the London version until another production comes along.

Some good shows were out on tour this year, including a rare opportunity to see Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, last seen in the UK in a mid 80s production starring Maureen Lipman. This year’s production, which originated in Manchester at the Lowry with a full orchestra, reduced in size for the tour, marked Connie Fisher’s welcome return to musical theatre (as a mezzo soprano) alongside Lucy van Gasse and Michael Xavier (having a busy year, as he went straight into Soho Cinders and now Leicester’s Hello Dolly). Alas Wonderful Town did show signs of its age as the book feels a little dated by now, but this production contained some good performances and it was worth going to hear the full score of a show that isn’t likely to be staged in this way again for some time. I also got to see UK Productions’ tour of 42nd Street (reviewed on this site), staged with grit and real panache and starring Dave Willetts, Marti Webb and Jessica Punch. And I also couldn’t resist the opportunity of seeing Julie Atherton in the Sister Act tour which ended in October. The show itself felt a little rushed and padded out in parts, with too much focus on a trio of male villains, and a rather uninteresting Mother Superior from Denise Black, but was worth seeing for Ms Atherton’s second half solo alone. I look forward to seeing her in the new musical Lift at the Soho Theatre this spring.

As usual, I had the opportunity of seeing several solo performers of note – reviewing a terrific Maria Friedman concert at Chicken Shed, but I also spent a very special evening at Birmingham Symphony Hall for a concert by Tony Bennett. I mention him here as firstly it was a truly memorable evening and also because of his repertoire of the ‘American songbook’, including ‘Maybe This Time’, and ‘Old Friend’ from Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. That show was revived to much acclaim at the Menier Chocolate Factory at the end of the year, and directed by Friedman. Clare Foster also made a quick transition from Leicester’s Finding Neverland, a new musical which promised so much and is still in development, to play Beth in Merrily, and both shows were reviewed on this site.

London’s late Autumn openings The Bodyguard at the Adelphi and the much slated Viva Forever at the Piccadilly have so far passed me by – the former has received much stronger notices than the latter. The two big spring openings – The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales and A Chorus Line at the Palladium are of much more interest, as is Sam Mendes’ large scale production of Charley and the Chocolate Factory at Drury Lane with Douglas Hodge later in the summer. Along with Betty Buckley’s return to London in the rarely seen Jerry Herman musical Dear World at the Charing Cross Theatre in February, and productions of The Pajama Game and Barnum slated for Chichester, 2013 looks set to be an even stronger year for musical fans.