CBSO: Best of Broadway – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Conductor: Michael England

Roughly every month, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) takes a break from its usual repertoire to present concerts of more popular music; this time it was the music of Broadway that got the CBSO magic, under the baton of conductor Michael England.

In a two-hour concert that tries to do justice to the history and development of the Broadway musical there are bound to be personal favourites missing. Nevertheless, this evening’s programme has been carefully curated with the perhaps predictable – Luck Be A Lady, The Sound of Music, Mr Cellophane – rubbing shoulders with the less obvious – The Book of Mormon’s I Believe or I Am What I Am for example. You’re never more than a few minutes from an old friend and maybe from a new favourite.

The evening opens with strident trumpets and rippling strings from the CBSO as they play the overture from Gypsy. The orchestra demonstrates its ability to switch mood and tempo during the piece as it moves between brash and melodic, England’s conducting style varying from the angular to sinuous to suit. The CBSO is much larger than the typical pit orchestra, allowing it to make the sound lush as it fills the room. This is a two-edged sword, however, as on this occasion, during the first half, the singers’ quieter notes were sometimes lost: this was remedied after the interval for the arguably stronger second-half programme.

Performing with the CBSO are four singers at the top of their game, all veterans of musical theatre. And one of the enduring delights of musical theatre is that, despite the criticisms from some quarters, it is a broad church with no stereotypical style. Our performers are Sophie Evans, with a crystal-pure soprano, Louise Dearman with an often more sultry presence, Oliver Tompsett with a light contemporary voice and Scott Davies with a powerful operatic tenor. All four meld together well in the intricate opening vocal number, The Rhythm of Life; subsequently, they sing alone or in various combinations as needed.

Evans and the orchestra bring a naïve youthful feel to Over the Rainbow, with a tinkling arrangement and an almost brittle quality to the vocals which is reprised in The Sound of Music. She shows a more artful side, however, in Wicked’s Popular, enjoying the portrayal of the almost-but-not-quite pompous Glinda. Her voice complements that of Tompsett well in A Whole New World.Dearman gives a powerful Maybe This Time, as it builds to its climax. Her voice positively soars in Let It Go and, later, in Defying Gravity, while she shows off her comic talents in Anything You Can Do with Davies.

Tompsett’s voice is rich and mellow. His rendition of Mr Cellophane has just the right level of insecurity, while Something’s Coming has the perfect blend of youthful excitement and anticipation. And his straight delivery of I Believe is a joy to listen to. Davies has a fine operatic tenor, but also a mischievous side. He pulls on the heartstrings in If I Can’t Love Her while his performance of I Am What I Am is a positive tour de force. The humour of a white-haired tenor pleading Tompsett to Tell Me More during the Grease medley that closes the first half is not lost on him as he camps it up gloriously.

All too soon, we’re in the final number (apart from the obligatory encore, of course), One from A Chorus Line, allowing the singers to work together to create a wondrous soundscape to send us out into the chill February night. The rapturous applause and buzz among the audience afterwards tell their own stories of another triumphal night with the CBSO in Symphony Hall.

Reviewed on 16 February 2024

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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