This was originally meant to be called West End Musical Christmas, and got postponed as the Government had no choice but to impose another lockdown – and if my memory serves me correctly, it was postponed again, and renamed West End Musical Celebration. There was, admittedly, a part of me that wondered whether it would end up becoming West End Musical Christmas again by the time it finally happened: either way, it was worth the wait.
Producers Chris Steward and Shanay Holmes did what they could to satisfy demand from musical theatre lovers, creating West End Musical Drive In, a series of socially distanced concerts in Edmonton, north London. From what I’ve been told, ‘applause’ consisted of car horns being sounded, which was apparently quite deafening if the ‘house’ (that is, car park) was full – the practice has since been banned by the operators of the drive-in venue: somebody somewhere must have put in a complaint. Sound was broadcasted to people’s car radios.
The relief, as far as Holmes was concerned, to be in a West End theatre and hear cheering and applause in response to a rousing musical number, was palpable. Putting on a concert of this nature meant it was possible to perform songs out of their usual place in the shows in which they are usually sung. Holmes started, for instance, with ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’, the final number in Hairspray, and when Alice Fearn reprised her Elphaba to belt out ‘Defying Gravity’, there wasn’t an interval immediately thereafter.
The show seemed to take a ‘something for everyone’ approach, only bending the ‘West End musical’ criteria in the final number, ‘From Now On’, from the motion picture The Greatest Showman. I struggled to recall which show Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’, sung with aplomb by Sophie Evans, was from: it is, of course, the final number in Rock of Ages. A five-piece band, led by Chris Hatt, supported proceedings well (even if the difference between this and the seventeen-strong orchestra in the same theatre at the previous week’s musical theatre concerts, The Show Must Go On, was noticeable for those of us in the audience who had attended both).
Holmes likes to do that thing that hosts of live concerts do, when they claim not to be able to hear the audience responding to a question although their hearing is perfectly fine. I find it infantile (which is my weakness, and not a reflection on Holmes’ hosting, which was bubbly and inviting), and I must also remember that this level of audience interaction wouldn’t normally happen in a West End production, in which the audience is all but ignored whilst a show’s characters interact with each other all evening.
Layton Williams put in a stunning performance at the end of the first half, performing the Act Two opening medley from Moulin Rouge! The Musical, comprising ‘Bad Romance’ (made famous by Lady Gaga), ‘Tainted Love’ (my point of reference is Soft Cell but it has also been covered by others), ‘Seven Nation Army’ (The White Stripes), ‘Toxic’ (Britney Spears), and ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ (Eurythmics). Williams’ second-half contribution, ‘Don’t Even Know It’ was supported by other members of the touring production of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie: goodness me, this guy can dance, and dance well.
Rachel John had much of the audience on their feet without even asking for her performance of ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ from The Bodyguard, while Holmes majored in the second half on Dreamgirls, singing ‘Listen’ and then later ‘One Night Only’. Trevor Dion Nicholas reprised his Genie in Aladdin, while Ben Forster, known for securing the title role in a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar by public ballot, sang the title number from the show (sung in the production by Judas Iscariot) rather than ‘Gethsemane’.
A suitably joyous evening: I’d see it all over again.
Review by Chris Omaweng
An all-star cast including Ben Forster, Alice Fearn, Sophie Evans, Layton Williams, Rachel John, Trevor Dion Nicholas & Shanay Holmes.
Choreographer Ben Davies
Musical Director Chris Hatt
Lighting Designer Howard Hudson
Sound Designer Adam Fisher
Costume Designer Faye Young
Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 5AY
Thursday 10 June, 7pm
Friday 11 June, 7pm
Saturday 12 June, 2pm & 7pm
Sunday 13 June, 2pm & 7pm