United Kingdom The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Presents the ‘Best of Broadway’: Mary Carewe, Ria Jones, Graham Bickley, Michael Dore (vocalists), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, David Firman (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 14.10.2011. (JPr)
This ‘Best of Broadway’ presentation is ‘box office gold’ for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the 5,000 or so people packing into the Royal Albert Hall for this annual performance is testament to the good fun that is had by all. That the real sense of an audience enjoying themselves takes until the last ten minutes of the concert is something the musical director and his four singers might think about addressing but I do not wish to seem over-critically in this review and any comments I make are in light of my experience of having seen live shows with most singers who have performed this genre of music from, amongst others, Bing Crosby, Shirley MacLaine, Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand of past generations to Idina Menzel of the current one. Not that Mary Carewe, Ria Jones, Graham Bickley and Michael Dore would wish to be compared to these superstars but they are vastly experienced in their own right and played a full part in an evening that ended with a smile on everyone’s face – and in these gloomy times we all need this sense of joyful release.
The concert cherry-picks the best known music from more than 20 of the greatest musicals and gives the vocalists the great challenge to bring these vignettes to life in the vast barn-like atmosphere of the Royal Albert Hall: most are ‘standards’ but they often tell an important story, explore burgeoning relationships or express – often strong – emotion. Though there were some misses as well as hits, it was to their great credit that Mary Carewe, Ria Jones, Graham Bickley and Michael Dore could switch mood and vocal style seemingly so effortlessly. Each year seems to require a different ‘angle’ and this year there was ‘A tribute to the great MGM musicals’ such as Kiss Me Kate, Easter Parade and High Society. Elsewhere there was something from a number of musicals that everyone would probably have in their top 50.
At this point I must comment that the average age of the audience was incredibly high such that although I am no ‘spring chicken’ I guess I would still be in the youngest 25% of those present. There were a number of school parties there in the cheaper seats seemingly behind the performers and one of my criticisms would be that the performers failed to acknowledge them until much too late on in the show. I am sure they were having fun but much of the music – unless it was from Dirty Dancing, Hairspray, Billy Elliot or Wicked – would have meant little to them: but then again these items performed meant nothing to the vast majority of those present and could partly explain the over-respectful, sombre, atmosphere for most of the evening. Only when young and old found something they both recognised – a medley from Mamma Mia – did the audience participation, that was long overdue, grip the Royal Albert Hall and by the encore of ‘Thank You For The Music’ most stood to wave their arms and sing-along. As exhilarating as this wonderful ending was, for me it was all a little too late and something like this could have been ‘orchestrated’ for the end of the first half of the eclectic musical programme as well.
The vocalists either sang together or in duet and each had at least one stand-out song. It was not until about halfway through the first half that Michael Dore livened up the proceedings with his rousing version of Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’, that was quickly followed by Ria Jones’s poignant ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ from Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard and Michael Dore was at his best for the exuberant ‘Electricity’ from Billy Elliot. Graham Bickley shone with an impassioned ‘This Is The Moment’ from the less-well-known-than-some Jekyll and Hyde, even though Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics here are hardly some of his best with ‘moment’ repeated more than a dozen times to my ears.
In this vastly enjoyable show only a few things dragged it down to the level of cruise-ship entertainment, namely some hyperactive orchestrations played by the valiant Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – with enhanced rhythm section – and some equally high-octane conducting from their musical director David Firman. Allowing the music more time to breathe could have created more atmosphere from time to time; also the large body of strings often was swamped by the brass and percussion. A little more rehearsal might have made the attempt at ‘dancing’ during ‘(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life’ marginally less embarrassing than it was. Last of all was the often garish and predictable lighting; all glitter ball stars for – guess what? – ‘Stars’ from Les Misérables … do I need to say what we had at the end of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’?
I am not merely quibbling here and write this in the hope that this this view from the Stalls helps! All in all I had a splendid evening and would recommend it to anyone who likes this sort of music.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra have CDs of ‘Best of Broadway’ and ‘The Very Best of Rodgers and Hammerstein’ available and for details of these and all their future concerts visit www.rpo.co.uk.