Hello and welcome to ‘Zing’s Record Collection’; join me as I review the very best (and worst) of musical theatre recordings, past and present.
In the next two editions I will be taking a closer look at the solo recorded work of the darling of British musical theatre, Ramin Karimloo (Love Never Dies, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables). In this first part I will be specifically reviewing his independent début solo LP ‘Within the Six Square Inch’, released in 2004 by Ramin K Productions/Shellwood Productions. Join me in the coming days for Part 2 – an exclusive review of his upcoming full début album, ‘Ramin’, to be released on the 5th of March by Sony CMG.
In 2002, Ramin Karimloo was a jobbing but promising young Canadian actor performing in the ensemble of Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Misérables. Whilst he did understudy and play the role of Marius on several occasions (I saw him perform in the role and found him excellent), it was not until he was cast by resident director and soon-to-be longtime collaborator Lawrence Connor as Raoul in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera at the end of the following year, that he would establish himself as a major upcoming talent in British musical theatre. In 2004, whilst still at Phantom, the ambitious Karimloo released his début LP titled ‘Within the Six Square Inch’, an eight track CD.
The most striking thing about this CD is just how strange the song choices are. At the time, Karimloo was a relative unknown with only two previous professional roles to his name in the West End. One would not have blamed Karimloo for simply turning out an album of popular showtunes. Often, a solo album is used as an opportunity for a performer to showcase their cast-ability for numerous roles he or she would like to be considered for; essentially a commercial audition tape – Karimloo decided to try something completely different by delving into the back catalogues of lesser-known musicals with some interesting choices..
Opening the album, Karimloo gives a powerful and emotional ‘Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?’, Harburg/Gorney’s jazzy 1931 Broadway number about an angry young man’s hopelessness after the Great Depression. Switching less-than-subtly from the moody early 1930’s to the grungy late 90’s, Karimloo gives us his ‘One Song Glory’ from Rent. In the context of the musical, the character Roger is fantasising about writing a great song to leave as a legacy, as he is dying of AIDS. Karimloo fancies himself as a bit of a rock star but it has to be said, this number is not his finest hour. His ‘rock edge’ vocal which he affects at will feels a touch contrived and unnatural to me. I have never been a fan of Rent and it is the only number on the album which sounds identikit. Up next is another, very different track about AIDS titled ‘At Least I Know What’s Killing Me’, a truly ghastly song from The Last Session, a failed Off-Broadway musical. Steve Schalchin, about whom the story is based (according to sources) is ‘credited’ with the awful lyrics Karimloo hollers out as he shouts his way through the turgid mess. Lines like: “I’d rather be me with AIDS, than to have to be you without it!” have no place being sung, sorry – shouted – on a CD like this, especially when completely out of context of any narrative drive.
Karimloo is joined by friend and future collaborator Hadley Fraser (The Far Pavilions, The Pirate Queen, Les Misérables) for a beautiful rendition of Billy Joel’s ‘New York State of Mind’. Both singers nail this number and their voices compliment each others wonderfully well; it is no surprise that they have since formed a band together and perform semi-regularly, when other engagements allow. Although not really a musical theatre number (it did feature for a time in Billy Joel’s flop musical Movin’ Out) it is the strongest number on the album and shows Karimloo’s versatility in a much more positive way than the previous track! Up next is some pure stock musical theatre, a lovely rendition of ‘Maria’ from West Side Story. Karimloo would make a wonderful Tony and this song stands out for all the right reasons; individual but believable, Karimloo even manages to nail the tricky higher parts where other singers often struggle. For Elton John’s ‘Written in the Stars’ from the musical Aida, Karimloo is joined by Sophia Ragavelas (Les Miserables, Mamma Mia, Never Forget) herself once a superb Eponine in the early days of the show’s switch to the Queen’s Theatre. Karimloo appears to struggle a little here, his high belt straining a little, particularly on the ears. Ragavelas is fine and fares a little better than Karimloo, but the song isn’t particularly memorable. In fact, the album rather tails off from here; ‘Lullaby’, another Billy Joel number is not even one of Billy Joel’s better songs, so why Karimloo chooses to coo it is beyond me – perhaps it had a special meaning to him. Either way, by the time we reach the finale – and second song from Aida – ‘Radames Letter’, the album has almost run out of puff; rather than going out with a rock n’ roll bang, Karimloo purrs his way through the short number perfectly ably but forgettably.
As I said at the start of the review; one can’t help but come away feeling a little confused by the song choices and, as a result, maybe a touch underwhelmed by the LP as an experience. For the most part, Karimloo sings well, but is let down by the material he has chosen to sing; whilst ‘Buddy Can You Spare a Dime?’, ‘New York State of Mind’ and ‘Maria’ impress, ‘At Least I Know What’s Killing Me’ is offensive and the album goes rather go out with a whimper.
Karimloo does deserve credit for choosing songs which perhaps are rather less commonly recorded, but I feel a full album of popular musical theatre songs would have perhaps given those who bought the album a lot more to enjoy as well as being a good deal more flattering to Karimloo’s considerable talents.
In Part 2 I will be reviewing Karimloo’s upcoming full début album release, ‘Ramin’.
- Harry Zing