When? Thursday 8th November 2012
Where? Grand Theatre, Leeds, stalls
Who? Neil Morrissey, Samantha Barks, Iain Fletcher, Sebastian Croft, Daniel Huttlestone, Stephen Moore, Jack Edwards, Claire Machin, CJ Johnson, David Langham, Emma Dukes, Stevie Hutchinson, Victoria Hay, Sophie Caton, Alison Connell, Sarah Cortez, Beth Davies, Hadrian Delacey, Lee Dillon-Stuart, Nicholas Duncan, Paul Farrell, Kade Ferraiolo, Mary Fox, James Gant, Matt Harrop, Lincoln Hudson, Kara Lane, Joe Maxwell, Mikaela Newton, Ryan O’Gorman, Claire Parrish, Annie Wensak
2012 has been a truly defining year for the Leeds Grand Theatre. Under the ambitious leadership of General Manager Ian Sime and his team, the venue has steadily grown in stature and is now rightly recognised in the industry as one of the largest and most prestigious receiving venues in the country. Following a record-breaking sell-out run of The Phantom of the Opera – which followed equally noteworthy visits of AAA touring shows Dirty Dancing, Sister Act and South Pacific - Cameron Mackintosh’s Oliver! revival, which is playing the Grand for five weeks, is arguably the pick of the bunch in the theatre’s breathtaking 2012 calendar.
Oliver! is many people’s favourite musical for a reason; the songs are catchy, numerous and memorable – the show running order reads like a list of musical theatre standards: ‘Food, Glorious Food’, ‘Oliver!’, ‘Where is Love?’, ‘Consider Yourself’, ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’, ‘I’d Do Anything’ and ‘Be Back Soon’ are some of the well-known songs which feature in the first act alone. Oliver! is ageless, Lionel Bart’s book is poignant and entertaining in equal measure, the characters are instantly recognisable and wonderfully intriguing – the material is simply a godsend for the right production. And this is certainly the right production!
This 2011/13 tour, adapted from the 2009 London revival, is a joy from first to last – and I left the theatre beaming. The production numbers, in particular, are an absolute joy to behold with the teams – nay hoards – of talented children performing to an exceptional standard. A synopsis for such a well-known show is unnecessary; the only real variations from the original 1960 production – or the iconic 1968 movie – come in the form of minor directorial tweaks and the aesthetics of the staging, rather than in the plot or any aspect of character development. Laurence Connor takes the directorial helm and does a sterling job in balancing the importance of the plot with accessibility – of course, it helps when the book provides a showstopping production number every ten minutes, should the attention begin to wander! As it is though, the acted scenes are equally entertaining thanks to the weird and wacky cast of faintly menacing characters which fill the Oliver! universe.
Young Sebastian Croft, playing Oliver, sang with clarity and power throughout. Opposite him Daniel Huttlestone, set to feature as Gavroche in the 2013 Les Misérables movie, makes a very cheery and cheeky Artful Dodger. The highly experienced and hard-working adult cast are a match for the youngsters; David Langham gave an amusing turn as the mildly sinister Child-Catcher-esque undertaker Mr. Sowerberry and Stephen Moore shone as the kindly Mr. Brownlow. Samantha Barks, a runner-up in the BBC I’d Do Anything search for a Nancy, possesses a superb voice and belts with the best of them. ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ and the subsequent reprise proved arguably the stand-out number of the evening. Iain Fletcher is perhaps bordering on the panto as the villainous, psychotic Bill Sikes – indeed, he was roundly booed at the curtain call – but comes into his own in his final, dramatic moments leaving his performance feeling stronger than expected.
In my previous visit to Oliver! in the West End, I had seen stage legend Russ Abbott don the famous Fagin rags to great success and, initially, I had doubts about lead Neil Morrissey’s musical theatre credentials. However, after a nervy start, I am delighted to say Morrissey was terrific as a very bona fide Fagin. Thankfully shunning early slapstick for a much ‘smaller’ – and certainly more sincere – second act performance, by ‘Reviewing the Situation’, Morrissey had the audience rapt – the eruption of appreciation at the end of the number was one of the loudest and longest I have heard at the Grand.
Oliver! is also a particularly beautiful production and the sets and super-slick staging are a marvel. Very reminiscent of past Cameron Mackintosh productions such as his outstanding 2001 My Fair Lady or 2005′s Mary Poppins, the evening simply glides by as sets are flown in from all angles with such smoothness and symmetry as to leave you open-mouthed at the technical wizardry on show. Totie Driver/Adrian Vaux’s set designs are beautiful, the vast backdrops of London are living, breathing environs. The orchestrations (William David Brohn) are of the highest order, as one would expect from a tour of this quality. From the cheery bounce of ‘Oom Pah Pah’ to the swelling orchestral arrangement of ‘As Long As He Needs Me’, Oliver! boasts a particularly strong, classy band of fifteen, under the strong leadership of musical director Toby Higgins.
A fantastic, upbeat end to a year to remember at the Leeds Grand with Oliver! providing a West End experience in the heart of Yorkshire.
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 18th September 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Dave Willetts, Marti Webb, Bruce Montague, Jessica Punch, James O’Connell, Carol Ball, Graham Hoadley, Graeme Henderson, Stephen Weller, Rebecca Marks, Lucy Ashenden, George Bray, Tabitha Camburn, Felicity Chilver, Daniel Clift, Abigail Climer, Katy Day, Anouska Eaton, Jamie Harris, Jenny Jones, Josh Kiernan, Stevie-Jean McGuire, Holly Mitchell, Marios Nicolaides, Ben Palmer, Debbie Paul, Claire Rickard, Hollie Sorelle, Sebastian Sykes, Billie-Kay
“Think of the two most glorious words in the English language; musical comedy!“, enthused ‘King of Broadway’ Julian Marsh before the Act II showstopper ‘Lullaby of Broadway’; in the case of UK Productions 2012 tour of 42nd Street, it is hard to disagree. 42nd Street is the ‘Broadway musical’ at its purest; huge production numbers see swathes of tap-dancing, top-hatted chorus boys vying for attention with a similarly handsome chorus line of young ladies, each offering notable talent in addition to the Broadway T&T combination, which was the backbone of musical theatre for the majority of the 20th century. Indeed the 1980 musical, set in 1930′s New York City during the Great Depression and re-worked from a 1933 novel, is an unashamed homage to the era – and a show which is still very much loved today.
The story is a classic scenario; Broadway diva Dorothy Brock (Marti Webb) breaks her ankle shortly before opening night of a new Broadway show, ‘Pretty Lady’, leaving the production without a star – and leaving the entire company, including legendary director Julian Marsh, out of desperately needed bread money in Depression-stricken New York City. Step forward bubbly Peggy Sawyer, (Jessica Punch) an unknown from Allentown, Pennsylvania who is making her professional debut in the chorus line. Can she step into the spotlight and become a star?
The musical is a blast from start to finish; a combination of warm humour, the light-hearted and fluffy narrative, and some wonderful song and dance numbers makes 42nd Street one of the best of its kind. Indeed, large chunks of the show are lifted and used for comic effect in other productions such as Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone and most notably The Producers, which watches as a love-letter to the likes of 42nd Street, which is evidence of the genre’s enduring appeal. The book is also surprisingly relevant and engaging for such a marshmallowy show; Act II’s ‘Sunny Side to Every Situation’ was particularly moving, the simple direction allowed the poignancy of the moment to shine through beautifully, as the redundant chorus girls fearfully contemplate their respective futures. The production numbers are an absolute joy to watch; the dancing is largely impeccable – particularly from the female ensemble – and the footwork outstanding as you would expect from a show which features a triple-threat dance-centric cast of over twenty dedicated hoofers, plus principal roles, tap dancing in unison. The show has camp in spades; early on, the fourth wall is very quickly and knowingly broken as Maggie suggests with a knowing smile that the chorus girls tap dance their way to the local restaurant, before putting musicians to sword: “We put them in a pit for a reason, you know”.
The sizable budget for the production has been very well spent on filling the stage with performers, both plentiful in number and quality. Gareth Williams’ cracking little orchestra of nine are a pleasure to listen to throughout and an unexpected luxury. To put things into perspective: the UK touring production of 42nd Street boasts a larger band than the West End production of Les Miserables. The costumes (Roger Kirk) are fitting and terrifically striking throughout, the wig work is similarly impressive for such a large undertaking. Douglas W Schmidt’s designs are surprisingly grand; the second act train station scene is given its own impressive set, as is the theatre dressing room; by the time the finale comes we are treated to the full company tap dancing in shimmering gold, on the iconic lit staircase. It is hard not to be impressed by the efforts of the producer and design team who spared no expense. Even the downstage backdrop projections and lighting work (David Howe) were impressive throughout and the projections used sparingly alongside actual, physical sets. Director/Co-author and 42nd Street regular Mark Bramble does a fantastic job of ensuring the action flows along nicely.
The cast is headed up by two British musical theatre veterans and household names in the industry in Marti Webb and Dave Willetts. Webb is decent enough as Dorothy Brock and she sings reasonably well. Her character is written to be outshone by her younger, more generously talented ensemble member colleague; and she duly is. Dave Willetts, previously outstanding in The Phantom of the Opera and more recently Craig Revel Horwood’s 2008 Sunset Boulevard, has something of a spark on stage which is hard to quantify. He can create a tension in the air that very few performers can muster and again achieves this as a gruff Julian Marsh. ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, the stand-out number of the performance, is his crowning triumph in the role, which he sings and acts with gravitas and dignity throughout. The quality throughout the ensemble is very high, Jessica Punch does very well as Peggy, with a wide-eyed excitability and charm which is impossible not to find endearing; James O’Connell shamelessly hams it up as Billy Lawlor to great comic effect; O’Connell, like Punch, is also an excellent dancer and had the technical skills to back up the comic elements of his role. Carol Ball starts very strongly as Maggie, helping carry ‘Go Into Your Dance’ with gusto. The dance ensemble all looked the part and had the ability to match, credit must be given to choreographer Graeme Henderson for his fabulous work and dance captain Hollie Sorelle for ensuring the dancing was as tight and focused as it was on the night. Slightly less focused, however, were the accents which were a curious mixture; for every Brooklyn there was an erroneous Texan or ropey General American. Not distracting, but not brilliant.
If you missed this tour in its original 2007 outing, you have a second chance; 42nd Street is a slice of classic Broadway on your doorstep and this production from Martin Dodd on behalf of UK Productions is thoroughly enjoyable for young and old alike.
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 14th August 2012
Where? Grand Theatre, Leeds, dress circle
Who? John Owen-Jones, Katie Hall, Simon Bailey, Angela M Caesar, Simon Green, Elizabeth Marsh, Vincent Pirillo, Hannah Cadec, David Phipps-Davis, Ben Sleep, Greg Castiglioni, Lee Ormsby, Claire Platt, Rosie Bell, Henry Grant Kerswell, Richard Woodford, Leigh Rhianon Coggins, A C Garcia, Kirk Jameson, Olivia Brereton, Sarah Joyce, Sam Harrison, James Bisp, Caroline Crawley, Cindy Ciunfrini, Rachael Crocker, Sophie Hartley, Lauren Lotz, Emma Roberts-Simms, Liesl Dowsett, Alistair Barron, Michael Diana, James Pullum, Hannah Grace, Siani Owen
Excerpts of this review of The Phantom of the Opera are taken from a previous review, “The Phantom of the Opera 2012 Review Comparison: UK Tour vs. West End” published in April 2012.
The Leeds Grand Theatre’s ongoing ambition and determination to secure the hottest shows on the touring circuit arguably culminated last night, with the press night of Cameron Mackintosh’s brand new record-breaking touring production of The Phantom of the Opera. General Manager Ian Sime’s long-term vision for the venue has, in 2012, elevated it on a par with the leading receiving venues in the country; not since My Fair Lady in 1966 has a show been booked for as many consecutive performances – or will be seen by as many visitors from across Yorkshire and beyond. It is fitting, then, that Laurence Connor’s vibrant new staging does Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic 1986 West End musical justice. Regular readers will know I am no stranger to Phantom, having reviewed the original production and tour here, the Las Vegas production here and the 25th Anniversary Concert and subsequent comment here and here.
Having only been on the road for a few months, very early into what will surely be a very long touring run, this new production of The Phantom of the Opera feels brand spanking new and worth every pretty penny that has been poured into it. The new production offers a far more literal depiction of the same Phantom universe as seen in the celebrated West End production for the last 26 years, the biggest difference being Paul Brown’s new set designs; gone are the lavish backdrops and curtains, instead we have unobtrusive projections, flown in set pieces and a large revolving multi-purpose drum with doors, which most memorably replaces the ‘travelator’ on the journey to the Phantom’s lair. It also rotates to show the swish new manager’s office, complete with exquisite red velvet styling. The drum serves to fill many of the visual gaps left (intentionally?) by original designer, the late, great Maria Björnson and on this level succeeds – however, purists would argue that Björnson’s imagery is synonymous with the Phantom brand.
Many will have seen the original production and will be curious to know what makes this production different; in actuality, besides the score and the fundamentals of the book, Connor’s Phantom is entirely original. Some changes truly improve the staging; the most notable example is the on-stage murder of a supporting character, which is shown in full gory detail and excellently executed (pardon the pun!). It was a rare chance to see The Phantom at his most evil and sadistic; again, this more literal depiction of The Phantom changes the entire dynamic of the piece and perhaps better explains the actions of key characters later in the musical. Björnson’s Phantom is very much a Romantic anti-hero, Connor’s is a cold blooded murderer and kidnapper – both characters are equally fascinating.
Connor has made a clear statement with the production; this is his Phantom, however, the trappings of the classic original remain and are entirely unavoidable. The costumes are near-identical (although the Phantom is missing his hat), the boat in the Phantom’s lair makes a brief appearance – one feels as something of a token – and a huge ornate chandelier is raised above the stalls menacingly, but unfortunately does not fall, which will inevitably come as a disappointment to some, such is the notoriety of that particular theatrical moment in audiences collective consciousness.
Phantom is of course an ensemble piece, but in my experience the success or failure of a performance hinges on the abilities of the three leads, The Phantom, Christine and Raoul, played in the tour by John Owen-Jones, Katie Hall and Simon Bailey respectively. All three performers have Phantom previous in the West End production and it is little surprise to find them perfectly capable. Owen-Jones has over 2,000 performances in the mask to his name, yet his performance has never felt fresher in this new production. He manages to bring a softer side to his performance – which is welcome – and sings as beautifully as ever. Owen-Jones has, since my last visit to this production in Manchester, visibly adapted to the physical demands of the role and makes a striking figure as The Phantom. Katie Hall makes a very young Christine and sings beautifully; her chemistry with Bailey’s weak-willed Raoul was convincing. Her standout number, ‘Think of Me’ was warmly received and she brought the house down on this occasion with her performance of ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’. Bailey sings well enough for the part but can seem a touch wooden with his acting; but I suspect this may be directed as the character is more similar to his reincarnation in the depressingly trite Love Never Dies. The supporting cast are all capable; Angela M Caesar has settled in wonderfully as Carlotta, adding some much-needed comic relief throughout. Greg Castiglioni does particularly well with the expanded part of Monsieur Reyer and understudy Lee Ormsby gives a confident performance as Monsieur Firmin. The performance was very tight all the way through and the dancing from the ‘ballet corps’ impeccable.
For theatre-lovers in Yorkshire, this production marks the welcome end to an 11 year wait for Phantom to return. It by no means makes the original West End production obsolete, but is well worth a visit as an outstanding production in its own right, with a strong cast led by experienced Welsh tenor John Owen-Jones (whose solo album ‘Unmasked’ I have reviewed here).
- Harry Zing
Hello and welcome to Zing’s Record Collection – join me as I run my eye over the latest cast recordings and musical theatre album releases. Today I’ll be giving a listen to the full debut album from one of British musical theatre’s top talents, John Owen-Jones, titled ‘Unmasked’ released April 2012 by Sain.
John Owen-Jones has been one of the top names in the West End for a decade. He has donned the mask as The Phantom of the Opera over 2,000 times in several different stints in the West End and, currently, the new touring production – and has donned Marius a similar number of times, carrying the felled student from the barricades as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, a role he has played to much critical acclaim on Broadway and beyond. In ‘Unmasked’, ignoring the punny title, Owen-Jones chooses songs from a wide spectrum of musical theatre which includes all of his greatest hits, such as ‘The Music of the Night’, ‘Bring Him Home’ and ‘Hallelujah’ – the latter being a remix his 2006 debut EP’s title track. With his strong fanbase duly appeased, Owen-Jones can focus on showing off his fabulous voice in a number of songs new to his repertoire.
The vocal bravado of Frank Wildhorn’s ‘This is the Moment’ is perfect for Owen-Jones’ powerhouse style and he duly delivers, with the number proving the stand-out track of the album. ‘Til I Hear You Sing’ is beautifully realised and Owen-Jones really tries to make the number his own. ‘All I Ask of You’, with pop-opera soprano Natasha Marsh, is as well sung as any rendition I have heard over the years.
‘Down to the Sea’ from Kristina is a moment of understated clarity and beauty and a superb, if unexpected, choice. Kander/Ebb songs seem to be like buses; you wait an eternity for a quality singer to record one, then two come along in as many months; The beautiful ‘I Don’t Remember You/Sometimes a Day Goes By’ medley from the duo’s underrated musical revue And the World Goes ‘Round was also featured on Martin Dickinson’s debut EP, drawing a rave review from yours truly. Owen-Jones boasts a big name joining him the shape of opera singer Bryn Terfel, the result is a very well sung medley, which, whilst different in style from ‘storytelling’ approach of Dickinson/Abigail Jaye’s rendition, is equally as enjoyable in its own way and is supremely well sung.
It is not all plain sailing, however. The album gets off to an underwhelming start with two curious choices, the drab ‘Nature Boy’ from Moulin Rouge and a slightly bizarre resurrection of Tom Jones’ 1786 hit ‘Thunderball’. Owen-Jones has publicly stated his admiration for countryman Jones and I just hope he doesn’t try and audition for ‘The Voice’.* Sondheim’s ‘Being Alive’ – possibly my favourite song from musical theatre – is nicely sung, but perhaps lacking in the required emotive qualities required for the part and by definition the song. I must also confess to being a little bit disappointed that Owen-Jones opted not to record his singing live with the orchestra, which leads to some albeit minor errors with rhythm and slightly elongated notes to match the music. This is particularly noticeable in ‘The Music of the Night’ but is present throughout.
‘Unmasked’ is a hugely successful and enjoyable album and shows what Owen-Jones is capable of, outside of the two roles for which he is almost exclusively known. Hopefully, now ‘unmasked’, we will see Owen-Jones expand his horizons and explore other stage opportunities to no doubt further critical success.
- Harry Zing
*It would be very uncomfortable to see another top British musical theatre star get rebuked by the likes of William “Bill”.i.am.
*UPDATED 26/04/2012 – The Phantom of the Opera 2012 Review Comparison: UK Tour vs. West End (April 2012)
When? Tour: Saturday 6th April 2012. West End: Thursday 12th April 2012 (matinee)
Where? Tour: Palace Theatre, Manchester, stalls. West End: Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, stalls
Who? Tour: John Owen-Jones, Katie Hall, Simon Bailey, Angela M Caesar, Andy Hockley, Simon Green, Elizabeth Marsh, Vincent Pirillo, Hannah Cadec, David Phipps-Davis, Ben Sleep, Greg Castiglioni, Lee Ormsby, Claire Platt, Rosie Bell, Henry Grant Kerswell, Richard Woodford, Leigh Rhianon Coggins, A C Garcia, Kirk Jameson, Olivia Brereton, Sarah Joyce, Sam Harrison, James Bisp, Caroline Crawley, Cindy Ciunfrini, Rachael Crocker, Sophie Hartley, Lauren Lotz, Emma Roberts-Simms, Liesl Dowsett, Alistair Barron, Michael Diana, James Pullum, Hannah Grace, Siani Owen West End: Peter Jöback, Sofia Escobar, Nadim Naaman, Wendy Ferguson, Barry James, Gareth Snook, Cheryl McAvoy, Jeremy Secomb, Anna Forbes, Tim Laurenti, Michael Kerry, Nicola Rutherford, Duncan Smith, Marc Vastenavondt, Joseph Claus, Ellen Jackson, Simon Rackley, Matthew Powell, Carmen Vass, Claire Doyle, Joanna Loxton, Richard Munday, Annatt Bass, Nicole Cato, Alison Croft, Layla Harrison, Charise Renouf, Anna Shircliff, Claire Tilling, Fiona Morley, Eleanor Blythman, Lyndsey Gardiner, Simon Shorten, Patrick Smyth, Colin Zammit
*This review contains spoilers!
Another year, another visit to The Phantom of the Opera. In fact, so under-dosed on the campy capers of the masked supervillain did I feel that I even managed to squeeze in visits to two different productions within a week. First on the agenda was a visit to the brand spanking new blockbuster tour, which has landed at the Manchester Palace from 5th April-19th May. The brand new non-replica production – a UK first – promised a new take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical. A subsequent visit to the West End production was inevitable for the purposes of this review, primarily to cast my good eye over new cast member Peter Jöback, who will don the mask until September 2012.
Having seen both productions in the space of a week, I feel perfectly positioned to directly compare the two productions in various areas before finally choosing a ‘victor’, the production, I feel, is most deserving of your hard-earned. And yes, I am fully aware that the money is all going in the same pot making me, essentially, a freelance unpaid member of the RUG marketing team.
Our historic West End theatres© collectively offer an absolutely atrocious customer experience in every facet of a patron’s visit. I will be writing a more detailed piece detailing my experiences when my review backlog is cleared; but, suffice to say, having worked in a West End theatre in various capacities I continue to find a disproportionately large percentage of the West End’s front of house staff surly, arrogant and unhelpful. The genuinely intimidating security door staff at the matinée performance of Phantom we attended actually clicked his fingers at us and pointed at the door when we reached the front of the queue. Does Her Majesty’s Theatre truly have such a serious issue with rowdy audiences during midweek matinée shows that it needs two burly bouncers being extremely rude to the punters, who have paid a considerable sum to be there? Then there are the drinks prices; in the interest of drawing comparison for this review I noted the price of a 330ml bottle of Coca-Cola was £3.00 and a large (250ml) glass of house white wine was £9.20. I noted the uppity front of house ushers literally screaming “NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY INSIDE THE AUDITORIUM”. Twenty minutes before curtain up. I sat in Row F (£39.00 each, TKTS) which has recently been refurbished and I must say, undoubtedly these are some of the best seats in the house, row F is the start of the rake and the seats are also boosted a clear foot above the row immediately in front.
Manchester Palace Theatre is a very grandiose regional theatre, similar in style to many West End theatres in size and feel. We were welcomed inside the busy foyer and quickly and easily found our seats. I noted a 330ml bottle of Coca-Cola was £2.00 and a large (250ml) house white wine was £5.80. Ample subsidised NCP parking is available five minutes walk from the theatre. I sat in row BB (£53.00 each, box office) which should really be sold as restricted viewing. Whilst it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the production, it was impossible to see the floor of even the very front of the stage, which impinged on my party’s view of some crucial scenes including the finale.
Winner: Tour (sit in at least row F or beyond)
The production design forms the biggest deviation between the new production and the original. In the West End production, the late, great Maria Björnson oversaw the entire production design encompassing the famous sets and costumes, which are synonymous with the Phantom brand. In my opinion, it is Maria Björnson’s incredible designs which make Phantom what it is. Phantom is to me a feast of delectable imagery with a bit of a plot and some rather decent music woven in. Tim Rice, when accepting his special Olivier Award gong last week said – and I paraphrase; “Andrew Lloyd Webber and I were lucky – we were surrounded by a team of very clever and talented people when we started out”. Whilst Rice did not work on Phantom, this quote certainly rings true of the West End production of the show; everything simply comes together. Hal Prince and Gillian Lynne’s work with Michael Crawford, creating the famous blocking and imagery used in scenes such as ‘The Music of the Night’ is famous in its own right, the image of the Phantom thrust against the portcullis backdrop is one of the most fondly remembered. Andrew Bridge’s wonderful lighting design compliments every nook and cranny of Björnson majestic sets. Lynne’s choreography takes the hum-drum of ‘Masquerade’ and, with Prince, turns the Paris Opera’s staircase into a shifting wall of colour.
The sets and costumes in the original production are still a joy to behold. Björnson’s shimmering ethereal world is heightened to dreamlike levels; magic takes place before our eyes as the chandelier rises poltergeist-like above the audience, the Phantom rows his beloved Christine across a ‘vast, glassy lake’. It is intentionally stylised in a very fitting way.
The new touring production offers a far more literal depiction of the same Phantom universe. The biggest difference being Paul Brown’s new set designs; gone are the lavish backdrops and curtains, instead we have unobtrusive projections (Nina Dunn) and a large revolving multi-purpose drum with doors, which most notably replaces the ‘travelator’ on the journey to the Phantom’s lair. It also rotates to show the swish new manager’s office, complete with embossed red wallpaper and prop-heavy decor. There is no doubting the drum – which made use of the resident revolve – is impressive, most particularly when staging the first journey down to the lair. The drum serves to fill many of the gaps left (intentionally?) by Björnson and on this level succeeds, however, I would argue that in filling these gaps, much of the imagery that the audience creates for themselves is destroyed. Given the choice between the two stagings, the minuses outweigh the plusses in the tour. The original staging the lake scene, in particular, I don’t believe can be bettered; we gain a drum and we lose our ‘vast, glassy lake’.
It is worth stating now; the chandelier does not fall and yes, it is very disappointing in direct comparison to the West End. It lights up and wobbles a bit and a pyro goes off (with shards of plastic landing on us) but ultimately is tame. I’m sure the production team would rather have done something more spectacular, such as the chandelier falling on the stage (as seen in the Hungarian non-replica production), but with the show being non-resident this is a technical impossibility. The lack of trapdoors is a constant issue in many of the famous scenes such as the lake scene and the finale, with many workarounds in place. The ‘angel’ post-’All I Ask of You’ scene is also notably unimpressive in comparison to the West End; once again the far more literal or ‘realistic’ approach loses lots of the magic.
Some changes have been made for the better; the most notable example is the on-stage murder of supporting character Joseph Buquet which is shown in full gory detail and excellently executed (pardon the pun!). It was a rare chance to see The Phantom at his most evil and sadistic. When arriving at ‘Il Muto’ in the West End production, I found myself yearning to see the newly imagined scene from the tour. The ballet scene in the original production, was in hindsight, crying out for this improvement and the scene is better for it. However, many of the weaker scenes have been given little or no attention and I can’t help but feel, much like I did with the Vegas production which I reviewed last year, this is an opportunity missed. WHY is there still a player piano in this show?
The costumes, when changed, are done for the sake of it with no visible benefits. The comedy robe and glittery mask that the Phantom wears in the ‘Point of No Return’ scene are just ridiculous. The famous fedora hat is also entirely absent, much to the chagrin of hat fans in the audience. ‘Masquerade’, curiously, being the number with the most opportunity to explore interesting costumes, is almost an exact replica of the West End with a couple of notable exceptions. The Phantom’s appearance as the Red Death at the end of the number was faintly stupid due to his less-than-spectacular exit (he turns around and strolls off the stage at a medium walking pace) – the West End costume, whilst a bit cheesy with the giant rubber head and less-than-subtle use of a double is at least entertaining in an over-the-top kind of way.
Winner: West End
*UPDATED* Directional Changes:
After receiving literally a couple of requests, here are my thoughts on the hotly debated changes made to a few key scenes in the touring production. The one which has divided fans the most is the newly choreographed ‘The Music of the Night’ number. Gone are the classic steps devised (and, allegedly copyrighted) by members of the original cast and creative team; instead, the new ‘Music of the Night’ is an altogether seedier and frankly stranger affair. Possibly with one eye on foreshadowing the events of Love Never Dies, the new direction sees the Phantom first blindfolding the (willing, it must be said) Christine, before eventally laying her still blindfolded sleeping body in his bed as the lights fade. The insinuation is less than subtle, but hardly as ‘offensive’ as being suggested in some – predictably obsessive – quarters; the half-dozen rabid hardcore ‘Deserted Phans’ I have spoken to have their own theories as to the reason for the newly-imagined blocking, including (but not limited to): avoidance of paying royalty fees, alien invasion, attempting to sexualise the show to support Love Never Dies, the double dip recession and weapons of mass destruction. In my opinion, the changes made are done without cynicism to try and make the show fresh and interesting for those tired of seeing 26 year old choreography repeated ad infinitum in what is a ‘new production’. Or it could be crop circles, who knows?
The newly directed ‘first unmasking’ scene is amended; rather than Christine unmasking the Phantom as he composes, she now snatches the mask while the Phantom is dabbing down the oozing massive hole in the side of his head with what appears to be a handkerchief. The Phantom’s reaction is almost exactly the same as the original. I can’t say what the point in that particular change was, but I am all for handkerchiefs in the theatre. And strolling around with parasols with a big hat on – and ‘a bit of tap’, but sadly these changes are yet to be made.
Aside from the vastly improved ‘Il Muto’ scene, I can’t think of many moments which have been changed for the better; a slight change of blocking here, a slightly different expression there. But aside from The Phantom being a bit less magicky and a lot more like a normal, albeit psychopathic, bloke with a massive hole in the side of his head there is little to report. All the same emotions remain, the romantic connection between the characters is neither better or worse – the changes to direction are a lot less damaging to the show’s alluring appeal than the changes to the production design.
Winner: West End
Phantom is of course an ensemble piece, but in my experience the success or failure of a performance hinges on the abilities of the three leads, The Phantom, Christine and Raoul, played in the tour by John Owen-Jones, Katie Hall and Simon Bailey respectively. All three performers have Phantom previous in the West End production and it is little surprise to find them perfectly capable. Owen-Jones has over 2,000 performances in the mask to his name, yet his performance has never felt fresher in this new production. He manages to bring a softer side to his performance – which is welcome – and sings as beautifully as ever. The well-built Owen-Jones can lack in a certain finesse required for the role at times, making him look a touch clumsy in comparison to the likes of Crawford, or even his generally inferior predecessor Ramin Karimloo, but such is the sacrifice for casting a particularly good singer in the role. Katie Hall is good enough as a very young Christine and sings nicely; her chemistry with Bailey’s weak-willed Raoul was convincing, though not perhaps as convincing as with Gareth Gates in the UK Tour of Les Misérables. Her standout number, ‘Think of Me’ was warmly received, but she struggled somewhat with her second act ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’, perhaps trying too hard on the acting side and forgetting her vocal basics. Bailey sings well enough for the part but can seem a touch wooden with his acting; but I suspect this may be directed as the character is more similar to his reincarnation in the depressingly trite Love Never Dies. The supporting cast are all capable and Greg Castiglioni does particularly well with the expanded part of Monsieur Reyer. The performance was very tight all the way through, the dancing impeccable as you would expect from a new blockbuster production. One particular cause for amusement was the terror of the harnessed actors as they descended the ‘pop out’ staircase on the exterior of the drum; the panic in their eyes as they slowly stepped down was genuine – it must be particularly nervy for Owen-Jones wearing the mask!
A lot of people, including myself, were very excited to see Swedish pop star Peter Jöback in the role. His performance at the 25th Anniversary Concert was spectacular for all the wrong reasons, but he is the first truly different Phantom to don the mask in ages and brings a buzz of excitement back to the West End. Well, he is certainly different! I really do have to commend Jöback; he tries so hard and actually attempts to make the role his own throughout. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about The Producers. Franz Liebkind falls and breaks his leg (“I broke my leg!“) forcing the uncontrollably camp Roger DeBris to step into the title role; what follows is a hilariously camp parody of a role which was written to be quite serious, no matter how melodramatic or over-the-top he may be in reality. I’m sure you follow my drift; Jöback is a laugh-a-minute and thoroughly entertaining in the role. Effeminate yet graceful, he moves like a Goddess; seducing Christine with a barrage
of tightly choreographed dance steps in ‘Music of the Night’. Jöback has worked so hard on perfecting his ‘Phantom’ voice he is almost indistinguishable from the real thing (if you close your eyes), except when trying to sing at the very top or very bottom of his register. He looks simply fabulous in the role; a freak of nature, more make-up than man. The truth is, I actually really enjoyed Jöback’s performance; shamelessly showbiz but entirely effort-driven, he is certainly a curio which is worth a look, just don’t expect miracles. Incidentally, he missed the previous two performances due to a throat infection, I would strongly recommend if you must see him then do so now; I have a feeling he may not last until September.
Understudy Nadim Naaman played Raoul with aplomb, looking confident and assured. He has a powerhouse voice which he was keen to show off when given the chance; keep an eye on this one. Wendy Ferguson and Jeremy Secomb gave their all as Carlotta and Piangi respectively; two actors who looked happy to be there. Elsewhere, I was a little disappointed. There were quite a few actors on autopilot, which I find unforgivable considering the number of actors desperate for work who would give their all every performance. I think the cast could do with a freshening up before it gets truly stale, as several looked tired and bored in the ensemble and supporting roles. The dancing was awful. I think they may have been missing quite a few cast members as I spotted every swing on. Energy levels were below an acceptable standard in some scenes such as ‘Masquerade’, which was a shame as this is purely down to the cast’s efforts on the day. The ‘ballet’, for what it was worth, was completely out of time and needs remedial action.
The tour takes away more than it gives; whilst the new effects are impressive and as technically astounding – if not more so – than the original production, it simply lacks the magic Prince, Björnson et al created at Her Majesty’s Theatre over twenty-five years ago. Much like the Les Mis tour, sometimes filling the gaps can destroy the suspension of disbelief. As with the Las Vegas production and the 25th Anniversary Celebrations, I don’t feel that the production team quite understand what – if anything – is wrong with the show and end up changing the wrong aspects, leaving the dodgy areas intact.
The more abstract, stylised West End production remains a better proposition in terms of production. Just not at the moment. Jöback is enjoyable in the role – not always for the right reasons – but the rest of the cast are generally off-colour and in need of redirection. If I had to pay £40+ to see either of these two shows again in the immediate future, I would undoubtedly choose the tour which is, at the moment, a tighter, better cast and more energetic affair.
Winner: The tour currently offers a better all-round experience as of April 2012.
Since I published this review back in October of last year, there has been one question on the fingertips of visitors to Chewing the Scenery. On the 5th of March 2012, the day the concert was shown in full by free-to-air American TV network PBS, no fewer than 2,562 people Googled ‘why didn’t michael crawford sing at the phantom anniversary’ or similar – and subsequently found my now six month old review. The piece has, in fact, received twice as many views since publication from people asking ‘The Crawford Question’ than every other search term related to the concert combined. The review is actually the top Google-ranked review (I wasn’t even at the event out of protest at the scandelous ticket prices!) but it is not a review my visitors seek – it is an answer.
So do I have a definitive answer? No. But I have heard plenty of theories! Crawford was performing in The Wizard of Oz on the day of the final performance and, by all accounts, it was a real rush for him to make it to even make it to the Royal Albert Hall in time. Many people had speculated that he and Sarah Brightman were to unite and perform at least one number from the show together. Brightman sang, but Crawford didn’t. Why?
He certainly still has what it takes; whilst his performance in The Wizard of Oz will perhaps not be remembered through the ages, his singing is still adequate and the sheer thrill of seeing him, however briefly, sing the part that arguably made the show such a success was seen as one of the main justifications of the insanely high ticket prices. Perhaps he didn’t want to risk somehow tainting the image of him as a younger man in his pomp singing the role? Perhaps he is not soundtrack perfect and wasn’t willing to commit himself to video performing as a man of nearly seventy? He is no Placido Domingo! But to not even sing a note unaccompanied must be considered a massive faux-pas for the producers – and perhaps even for Crawford himself.
I am reminded of a visit to the Palladium in 2009 for a special charity gala event in aid of Crusaid, fronted by Jerry Herman who was sadly unable to travel from the United States due to poor health. After Barbara Cook and other guest stars dropped out with varying degrees of notice, only one of the star names remained, a certain Ms. Angela Lansbury. Looking very frail, tired and with little or no rehearsal time (having arrived on a flight from New York City only hours previously), Ms. Lansbury not only sang a few lines from Mame but fulfilled all her obligations, meeting and greeting those who donated to attend a special champagne reception, taking the time to pose for photographs, sign autographs and just generally prove what a class act she is. At the age of eighty. Having flown for eight hours for a one-night-only unpaid charity event. It really puts things into perspective, at least in my mind.
The suggestions that Crawford should have played the part instead of Ramin Karimloo are laughable; but if there is one thing that people don’t like, it is feeling let down by their heroes. People search Google expecting to find a real reason why Crawford chose not to sing; laryngitis, artistic differences – anything. But six months later people are looking back and saying ‘why didn’t Michael Crawford sing?’.
I doubt that question will ever be truly answered.
- Harry Zing
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 this edition, I will be taking a look at the debut solo album from musical theatre star Martin Dickinson (Assassins, Jekyll & Hyde) titled ‘Encore’, out now from Goodge Entertainment.
Recorded at the world-famous Abbey Road Studios and featuring a twenty piece orchestra (a rare delight in the modern day), ‘Encore’ is a ten track album of the finest love songs from the world of musical theatre, beautifully performed by Martin Dickinson, undoubtedly a musical theatre star with an exciting career ahead of him.
The album kicks into life with a lively and powerful ‘Love Changes Everything’, possibly the quintessential musical theatre love song, of course from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love. But it is the album’s second track ‘I Don’t Remember You/Sometimes a Day Goes By’ which perhaps better showcases Dickinson’s biggest strength – and probably the most highly sought-after quality in musical theatre – the ability to earnestly emote through song, whether it be desperation, apathy or sheer joy. The arrangement (Martin Higgins) from the Kander/Ebb revue ‘And the World Goes ‘Round’ initially tells the story of a man in denial about a love lost in ‘I Don’t Remember You’. As the story progresses, with time having seemingly healed old wounds, we hear a more upbeat reflection from the character as he proudly yet ruefully declares the yearning he feels for his lost love in ‘Sometimes a Day Goes By’. As the arrangement concludes we hear the two conflicting emotions battle (not unlike the ‘Confrontation’ from Jekyll and Hyde, but with more love and less schizophrenia); at this point just sit back and soak in the brilliance of both Kander and Ebb’s work (among their finest) and Dickinson’s soaring vocals.
Dickinson is then joined by Helena Blackman (whose own album I reviewed here) for ‘All I Ask of You’; Dickinson makes a terrific Raoul, the older quality to his voice makes it a joy to listen to him singing the role; unfortunately I find Blackman perhaps a touch too squeaky in this number. Some My Fair Lady follows, as we get Dickinson’s awfully priggish Freddie, who even goes as far to omit the word ‘arse’ from the slightly unnecessary intro. Once the number starts proper, the performance is again excellent, his high baritone ringing loud and clear through the sumptuous orchestra.
For ‘I Won’t Send Roses’, Dickinson is joined for the first of two duets with second guest star Abigail Jaye (Evita, Joseph), a performer I very much admire. The classic number is the best from Mack & Mabel and, like with the rest of the song choices for the album, is absolutely spot on. Jaye’s singing does not disappoint, singing with the crystal clarity and power that I have come to expect from her. The second duet featuring Jaye, ‘You Should be Loved’ from Side Show is a slightly more obscure but equally as enjoyable a number. A lot more epic in scale, the song is a beautiful love power ballad duet which has actually tempted me to give Side Show another chance! ‘Til I Hear You Sing’ from Love Never Dies is a song very much in vogue; I must confess though this song, although well sung, is not my favourite number. Whereas the hyperactive ‘She Loves Me’ is actually a completely new one for me and thoroughly enjoyable. The album comes to a close with the only non-thematic number of the album; ‘It’s Better with a Band’ a joyous upbeat celebration of music, which Dickinson can only pull off with the help of the superb orchestra. The album doesn’t fizzle out – it goes out with a bang!
Dickinson has a very expressive deep timbre to his voice which belies his young age; he is certainly best when acting through song, ‘I Won’t Send Roses’ and ‘I Don’t Remember You/Sometimes a Day Goes By’ possibly highlight this best, but ‘Encore’ is an album of the very highest quality across the board; the production values are second to none and the song choices are uniformly excellent. Dickinson’s decision to perform each number ‘in character’ is a very smart one, he is wholly believable in the parts he sings with no exceptions and there are no liberties taken here. It would have been possible to record and put out an album with a lot less investment – both emotional and financial – but that would not have done justice to Dickinson’s talent or, indeed, his potential to secure the top roles in British musical theatre.
- Harry Zing
Shortly after writing the above review, I had the opportunity to speak to Martin and he told me a little more about ‘Encore’ and his plans for the future..
Q: So, after a lavish gala event in the West End, your debut album has just been released. Could you tell us a little about the album’s creation and what listeners can expect from ‘Encore’?
We set about the project in July last year, I’d just finished a run in Jekyll & Hyde and I’d been lucky enough to step into the title role, when Marti Pellow got bumped on the nose by one of his fellow actors! A friend of mine, Dorothy Seymour, had previously offered to help me put an album together, but I didn’t really take her too seriously. I suppose going on in Jekyll & Hyde just gave me the extra confidence and after being asked again I went for it! I decided to put together a selection of love songs from musical theatre plus a nice bonus track on the end, ‘It’s Better with a Band’ which is a just a lovely celebration of music generally. So, I went to Abbey Road studios and had a chat with Jonathan Allen, who’s responsible for a lot of the live broadcasts from the Royal Opera House as well as recently working on the soundtrack to Michael Jackson’s ‘This is It’ – I wanted to feel as if I was in safe hands, because I had never recorded an album before. We signed a deal and decided to do it with an orchestra as opposed to backing tracks, because I wanted to really make it a celebration of live music. We used an orchestra of twenty and got some lovely orchestrations together – I’m actually on a bit of a mission to bring back live orchestras, I used to listen to the MGM orchestras and the symphonic sound is just amazing.
Q: You have chosen ten excellent songs from the world of musical theatre, was there a particular inspiration behind the song choices you made?
I wanted to choose songs that I had grown up with, songs that had inspired me along the way and a couple of others that people had suggested to me. All of them were inspired by love; either love for musical theatre, or love for each other.
Q: Just in time for Valentines Day…
(laughs) Yeah! and Mothers Day!
Q: I noticed there is no ‘This is the Moment’?
Yes, I toyed with it, but because I went with concept of love I thought it’d be a little bit cliché.. I actually did it at the launch … but hopefully it’ll be on the second album!
Q: And the album features not one, but two guest stars in the shape of leading ladies Helena Blackman and Abigail Jaye, the latter of whom you knew from working together previously…
That’s right, I worked with Abigail Jaye in Joseph where she was my fantastic Narrator. Abi is such a talented actress with amazing vocals – she’s somebody who can just tell a story through her singing. I trained with Helena at Guildford School of Acting and it was natural for me to ask her to do it, as her vocals are stunning. Both Helena and Abigail have such wonderful voices, you can just listen to them and they will tell a story without even needing to see them.
Q: You are perhaps best known on the stage for covering and playing the lead in ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ in the recent UK tour. You were understudy to Marti Pellow in the production, can you tell us about your experiences on the show?
Jekyll & Hyde was probably the highlight of my career up until now. We had a fantastic team and it was a fantastically dark version of the show. Frank Wildhorn’s music is epic and so well written that the numbers stand both alone and in the show, the whole experience was fantastic from the beginning of rehearsals to the very end of the run. Working with Marti was fantastic; I had to take a little rain check when I was in rehearsals, I was sat with him in the stalls and thought back to my childhood when I was watching ‘Wet Wet Wet’ on the TV! Thinking back, ‘This Is the Moment’ was actually the song I used to get into drama school. It is one of those songs that you grow up with, so actually getting to do it on stage in front of Marti was great in one way – but also nerve wracking in another.
We are briefly interrupted by a dog barking..
Oh that’s Todd, my little mascot – he tours with me as well!
Q: And how was it stepping in for Marti Pellow..?
Well, Marti unfortunately got elbowed on the nose by a fellow actor during Act II of a performance and I had to go on. I was sat up in the dressing room and the show had stopped, so I ran down and they were trying to find me, saying ‘you’re on!’. They dragged me into wardrobe and makeup and wigs and on I went – within five minutes of hearing about it, which was bizarre… it was one of those moments when you’re stood behind the gauze waiting to go on and your whole career to date flashes before your eyes, and you’ve got the voice of your acting teacher at college in your head…it was the most memorable point in my life to date! Marti and his management were so supportive, he sent me well-wishes and afterwards and his fans were lovely and very warming. I played it for nearly two weeks after that, so I was really lucky.
Q: Your musical theatre career has taken you from being a singing pirate to serial killer in just three years – quite a career change! What roles would you love to play in the future and why?
Singing pirate? Was I?!
Q: I think you played Smee in Peter Pan the Musical..?
Oh right, yes! (laughs), I played the role of Smee up in the Gordan Craig Theatre in Stevenage – it was fun actually! It was more of a musical version of the show, rather than a pantomime version. I’ve never actually done panto, but I would quite like to do it!
Q: What roles would you love to play in the future and why?
I would love to play the one everybody wants to play, The Phantom, just because that’s something I’ve grown up with. I know there’s kind of a stigma about Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, but the guy is just brilliant really. He has created this commercial vehicle which is still going strong today, and I think The Phantom of the Opera is one of the best musicals out there, because it’s stood the test of time. The role of the Phantom is just such an epic, heart-wrenching role that is so demanding as an actor – it’d be great to do that. I’d also like to play Javert in Les Mis, I’d have loved to have played Marius but I think I’m getting too old now!
Q: And in the immediate future is 2nd Company’s production of Assassins from the 20th of March…
Yes that’s right, I shall be taking on the role of John Wilkes Booth, which is one I’m really looking forward to. I mean, Sondheim’s just fantastic, isn’t he? The music is so well written, but it’s a bloody nightmare to learn! Ray Rackham, the director, has this amazing vision and the way he directs is fantastic. He really has a way of pulling all the ‘artistic juices’ out of you!
Assassins plays the Pleasance Theatre, Islington from 20th March – 8th April 2012 – http://www.2ndcompany.com/
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
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 last edition, I took a retrospective look at Ramin Karimloo’s 2004 debut solo EP ‘Within the Six Square Inch’; whilst I found it perhaps not the finished article, it is certainly an album which showcased Karimloo’s unique vocals and future recording potential nicely. In this second and final part, I will be giving a listen to Karimloo’s full debut album titled ‘Ramin’, which is set to receive a major release on the 5th of March by Sony CMG.
After leaving the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera in 2004 for stints in Les Misérables (Enjolras) and Miss Saigon (Chris, UK Tour), Ramin Karimloo was to return to Phantom to fulfill a career-long dream: to perform the role of the masked mad man himself. During his time at Phantom, Karimloo arguably succeeded in attracting a new generation of fans to the show – and certainly won his own dedicated fan base along the way. After a cameo in the dreadful 2004 Phantom movie adaption (thank you, Joel Schmacher), Karimloo was given the opportunity by long-time mentor Andrew Lloyd Webber to originate the role of ‘The Phantom’ in the long-awaited sequel Love Never Dies. Whilst the show was perhaps not the commercial or artistic success Lloyd Webber had hoped for, Karimloo was given a unique opportunity to showcase his talent, and the hype and exposure which surrounded the production certainly helped thrust him into the mainstream in his own right.
‘Ramin’, an upbeat pop-rock inspired album certainly reflects Karimloo’s long-held determination to be recognised outside of musical theatre. Indeed, for the most part Karimloo steers well clear of the typical musical theatre standards one would expect to hear, opting instead for a real variety of styles ranging from the radio friendly pop-rock of the first single to be released ‘Coming Home’, written by Ryan Tedder (recently Leona Lewis’ ‘Bleeding Love’, Beyoncé’s ‘Halo’), to Muse’s ‘Guiding Light’. The audience-friendly power-ballad comes in the shape of Bryan Adams’ record-breaking ‘Everything I Do (I Do It for You)’.
Unfortunately, the songwriting credits have not been made public. I do know though from various press releases pieced together from across the internet that Karimloo has song-writing credit for at least four of the album’s tracks, including ‘Constant Angel’, a heartfelt ballad with seemingly religious connotations; ‘with every prayer I am constantly there with you’, is one such lyric which doesn’t help to avert the feeling of an (albeit fairly passive) religious message which is carried throughout the album. ‘Show Me Light’, the album’s opener is one such example; a song which sounds fresh from any one of many Christian-rock bands which are so popular in the United States.* The aforementioned ‘Coming Home’ sounds somewhat like the X-Factor’s ‘winners song’ – just give it a listen, you’ll see what I mean! But it is when Karimloo is singing from the soul that he is most potent; the final track on the album, ‘Cathedrals’, is actually a single recorded track so good it deserves to start its own paragraph.
‘Cathedrals’ feels like the accumulation of an album’s hard work. A cover of ‘Jump Little Children’s stirring ballad, a song made famous by Joan Osborne, ‘Cathedrals’ is beautifully and emotionally sung by Karimloo as he manages to soften his notoriously powerfully brash tone and truly give the most tender and memorable performance of his career to date. Fans of Karimloo’s stage work will not be disappointed however; there is a quickened pop version of ‘Music of the Night’ and, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the strongest songs from Karimloo’s stage repertoire ‘Til I Hear You Sing’, from Love Never Dies, makes an appearance.
‘Ramin’ provides a satisfying twelve tracks of listener-friendly pop rock without necessarily pushing any boundaries in the genre; Karimloo, must be praised however for giving such a heartfelt and high quality performance with this, his first professional recording with Sony CMG. Karimloo has been equally brave and business savvy in choosing to co-write several tracks on the album, giving him a certain credibility which cross-over artists vie for. The album as a whole sounds alike to the modern day ‘Take That’, inoffensive, marketable and with musical integrity, an album which is sure to appeal to Ramin’s existing fans and, if marketed right, a certain record-buying demographic.
Karimloo is currently playing Jean Valjean in the West End production of Les Misérables and is known to be persuing other ventures both in and away from the theatre. Whilst the quality of the works in terms of both effort and performance is without question, whether or not the album is to be a success is an answer only his key target demographic can provide.
‘Ramin’ is available to purchase from 5th of March, released by Sony CMG.
- Harry Zing
*After discussing this album with a arts professional colleague it occured to us just how ‘American’ this album feels. Having travelled across the US extensively, I contend that many of this album’s tracks with the religious overtones / soft-rock accessibility would make ‘Ramin’ perfectly accessible to the US radio airwaves. Perhaps this was the intention at least in part for ‘Ramin’s sound?