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Two enchanted evenings - 'The Sound of Musicals' and 'Just Me and A Piano'

Photo credits: Raymond Gubbay Ltd and Live at Zédel /The Crazy Coqs

I stepped away from the reviewing circuit this weekend to enjoy three shows (it would have been four but there was a cancellation due to some sort of scheduling conflict). The first, the current Trafalgar Studios run of the American comedy Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road, had a subtler audience response than the rip-roars going on around me the first time around, but remains an absolute hoot. The other two are not so much shows as concerts, very different in scale and style, but both pushing boundaries, in their own ways, presenting familiar works as well as new ones, and with certain songs performed in a manner that is refreshing in its inventiveness, and for not being a copy-and-paste-from-the-original-cast-recording job.

The Sound of Musicals is a show that usually hits the Barbican just after Christmas, and one I hadn’t returned to since I attended it in December 2011. One of the performers, James Graeme, buggered up the final note in ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Misérables. It’s not an easy song to sing: one of the most popular numbers from the musical revue Forbidden Broadway changes the first lines of ‘Bring Him Home’ to, “God, it’s high! / This song’s too high / Pity me! Change the key!” Nonetheless, there were mutterings from the cultured audience, and the critic in me wanted to shout, “Refund!” I resisted then. I am not sure I would do so now, and if I got turfed out of the concert hall for being disorderly then I would have left with pleasure.

Anyway, this Spring 2017 small tour, taking in Birmingham and Manchester before coming to the Royal Festival Hall, brings in more contemporary tunes as well as the usual musical theatre concert standards. The programme has, as conductor Richard Balcombe, pointed out, been refreshed. This latest edition had a decent mixture of older and newer showtunes The London Concert Orchestra did well with fully orchestrated renderings of ‘Seasons of Love’ from Rent (you know, the one about five-hundred-twenty-five-thousand-six-hundred minutes) and ‘Falling Slowly’ from Once. I refer again to Forbidden Broadway with their alternative lyrics: “Take this cramping hand, and hire a band / We’ve still got time! / But we have no choice, no union voice / And it’s a crime!” This was, of course, in reference to the actor-musician prevalence in Once. It would have upset the purists to have an orchestra playing the melody. More fool them. Elsewhere, it was left to Tim Howar to bring the house down songs in the second half from rock musicals, ‘Pinball Wizard’ from Tommy and ‘Gethsemane’ from Jesus Christ Superstar.

I have made no secret elsewhere of Wicked not being my cup of tea, my one and only visit in 2009 marred by extremely rude audience members, and holes in the storyline. Even taking into account the fantasy world that the show inhabits plus the higher level of suspension of disbelief that this involves doesn’t make up for the unconvincing plot twists. It always seems to be those audience members who adore Wicked that are unpleasant at other shows: I was once shoved quite forcefully making my way out of the theatre after a performance of In The Heights by someone who then loudly proclaimed to her companion no other musical could ever come remotely close to the alleged superior quality of Wicked. But I have come to appreciate one or two of the showtunes from Wicked, one of which, ‘Popular’, was performed in the Royal Festival Hall by Louise Dearman, apparently the only performer to date to have been cast as both principal Glinda (as opposed to standby or alternate) and principal Elphaba, in 2010-11 and 2012-13 respectively. Dearman also sang a number from the Broadway show Waitress, ‘She Used To Be Mine’ – oh, that show must transfer to London at some point!

The other tune from Wicked which I have eventually started liking, or more accurately tolerated because of its near-ubiquity in musical theatre concerts, is ‘Defying Gravity’, which was done with such grace and poignancy in the intimate setting of Live At Zedel at a cabaret concert starring Alice Fearn. The concert – gig, really – was called Just Me and A Piano. Grammatical torture aside (why not Just A Piano and I?), Fearn’s version of ‘Defying Gravity’, a duet with Oliver Savile, the current Fiyero in the West End production of Wicked, had the right sort of emotional depth that does more justice to the lyrics than the usual vocally impressive but ultimately heartless belting.

It does seem to be the final numbers at events like these that stick in the memory, one which Fearn exploited to its fullest extent in a song expressly about leaving the audience wanting more. The encore was a version of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Being Alive’, from Company. Back at the Festival Hall, The Sound of Musicals plumped for ‘Oh What A Night (December 1963)’ from Jersey Boys, a show now sadly departed from the West End, to close out with; for the encore the orchestra went full tilt with ‘I’m A Believer’, from Shrek The Musical.

I must also mention the other performers in The Sound of Musicals, Hannah Waddingham, who reprised her role of The Witch in Into The Woods (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Summer 2010), singing ‘The Last Midnight’ from that show; and Oliver Tompsett, whose version of ‘Corner of the Sky’ from Pippin reminded me why that too is a show I must see a production of sooner rather than later. Of note from Just Me and A Piano is the actual pianist, Nick Barstow, whose musical arrangements for this short but sweet gig were extremely pleasant to listen to: I’d happily sit through both concerts all over again.

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