Rescheduled from its original Christmas slot, the inclusion of They Just Keep Moving the Line from Smash could not be more appropriate for a group of renowned performers coming together in concert to mark the reopening of theatres after several false starts. West End Musical Celebration, staged live at the Palace Theatre, is a musical theatre extravaganza filled with sequins, bouncy crowd-pleasing numbers and outstanding vocal talent.
Building on the success of the Drive-In and Brunch concerts in 2020 hosted by co-producer and Bodyguard star Shanay Holmes, this is a deliberately ‘immersive’ experience in which the audience is welcomed into the cast. In practice this means you can sing or clap along, dance and whoop throughout this 2-hour show, with Holmes repeatedly telling the audience to ‘make some noise’. She is a warm and relatable host, and clearly very moved and sometimes a little overwhelmed to be back on stage doing what she loves most.
But the sense of occasion never doesn’t prevent Holmes from leading from the front, providing a powerful rendition of the joyous You Can’t Stop the Beat from Hairspray (shortly to reopen at the Coliseum), followed later by two Dreamgirls numbers, Listen, and a disco version of One Night Only as the penultimate song all of which showcase Holmes’ incredible range.
Act One tends towards powerful numbers that hold the silent audience captive in their seat including recent Phantom Ben Forster’s Music of the Night and Waving Through a Window from Dear Evan Hansen, Sophie Evans’ delightful Somewhere Over the Rainbow which precedes Suddenly Seymour, a duet with Trevor Dion Nicholas, and former-Elphaba Alice Fearn’s Defying Gravity – described as the song everyone wants to include.
Suitably warmed-up, Act Two encourages far more audience participation with Rachel John performing a terrific Don’t Rain on My Parade’ and I Wanna Dance with Somebody by which time the auditorium is on its feet. Fearn finally gets a real singalong going with Let it Go, a momentum that Evans builds on with a enthusiastically received version of Don’t Stop Believing – the show occasionally veering away from musical theatre but no one seems to mind.
Even with such a fine cast, energy levels rise notably with Layton Williams’ invigorating song and dance renditions of Sex is in the Heel from Kinky Boots and a ferocious Act One finale medley of Bad Romance, Tainted Love, and Toxic. There’s Something About Jamie fans even get an Act Two treat with four dancers from the touring cast joining Williams for Don’t Even Know It, and look out for his stunning encore number couture.
Yet, there have been a few of these musical anthology concerts at the Palace with overlapping programme styles. Modern musicals feature significantly and there is always a bit of Andrew Lloyd Webber while Disney is an increasing presence, but no Sondheim, no Kander and Ebb, no Rogers and Hammerstein, very few songs written before 1980 in fact, omitting a large number of West End musical successes, many of which have had hugely acclaimed revivals in the past five years.
That doesn’t detract from the quality of the performance here despite some weakly choreographed dance routines. Based on audience participation alone, West End Musical Celebration is a huge success, one that gets the whole auditorium joining in with its immersive programme and showcasing the best songs and talent in musical theatre.
Runs until 13 June 2021