Reviewer: Ian Foster
With her 2010 performance as Blood Brother’s Mrs Johnstone gaining her an Olivier-award nomination and a forthcoming turn as Mary Magdalene in the arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, erstwhile Spice Girl Melanie C’s connection to the world of theatre is a genuine one and so the release of a CD of musical theatre songs could well be seen to be more than just paying lip service. Recorded with long-time collaborator Peter-John Vettese, Stages is, according to the official website, “a collection of songs from the theatre that have been important to Melanie at various stages of her life”. Songs, from the theatre. Remember this.
Over a confused and unimaginative track-listing, which covers a bewildering array of songs whose connections to the theatre are often far from apparent, this seems destined to be a collection that will disappoint fans of both Melanie C and of musical theatre. What this album wants to be – and arguably should have been – is a collection of easy listening soft jazz. Chisholm is a much more effective singer when relaxed, her distinctive nasal tone appears far less frequently, and so the gentle swing through the Gershwin-penned Aren’t You Kinda Glad We Did from The Shocking Miss Pilgrim is rather pretty, and renditions of I Only Have Eyes For You and My Funny Valentine are quietly efficient.
But not content with being a musical theatre-jazz standard hybrid, Stages further smudges its identity with the spurious inclusion of generic numbers whose connections to the central theme are tenuous at best. Anyone who a) thinks the world needs another version of Both Sides Now or more crucially b) considers it as representative of musical theatre (it is part of the soundtrack for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in case you were wondering) should seriously look at their career choices. Likewise with the Bacharach/David classic I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself, apparently here as part of Shout! The Mod Musical and admittedly far from horrendously sung and arranged here, its inclusion speaks of a massive failure of imagination in song choice, a complete lack of faith in the concept of a musical theatre album, or perhaps both.
Sadly though, even when Stages does what it ostensibly set out to do, it comes up extremely short. A stab at Sondheim in Another Hundred People is brave but lacking the vocal precision that the song demands to really come alive, the big-band treatment of Maybe This Time smooths out the rough edges of desperation that is the core of the song, the list of things that the singer of Hair’s Ain’t Got No / I Got Life does not have should be amended here to include the necessary soul to sing this song and give it meaning and incredibly given that there’s a genuine connection to musical theatre for once with Tell Me It’s Not True, the impassioned finale from Blood Brothers, the arrangement here is horrific, the final two minutes in particular are just criminal. Even the much-touted Spice Girl reunion with Emma Bunton guesting on Chess’ I Know Him So Well is rendered dull and lifeless by a rendition which tinkles along unobtrusively with little impact.
Ultimately, the conflict between creativity and marketability has resulted in something which is at best inoffensive pap and at worst, a calculated yet uninspired opportunist move. It is most frustrating as the hints of what could have been are here: a stripped-back take on The King and I’s Something Wonderful has a shimmering delicacy and Lloyd-Webber’s I Don’t Know How To Love Him has a certain charm. But with album notes that proclaim a lack of interest in singing anything in character on this album, the final product is a confused mess and predictably rather soulless. The world of musical theatre is full of writers, old and new, who deserve to be showcased with passion and respect and fortunately, we have a raft of wonderful hard-working, under-rated stars who are willing to do just that. So instead, for a real look at the varied vibrancy of the world of musical theatre, listen to the likes of Julie Atherton, Helena Blackman and Annalene Beechey demonstrating real commitment to the genre.