Conductor: Richard Balcombe
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
How do you lift yourself from the torpor that descends in those few days between Christmas and New Year? Well, one way is to descend on Birmingham’s Symphony Hall and spend an evening in the company of singers with superb musical theatre pedigrees as they entertain you with a selection of songs from the shows.
And that is what makes this “songs from the shows” concert work so well: the four singers are all steeped in the musicals of the West End and Broadway with an impressive number of award nominations between them. All are great singers, but they are performers first and this raises the performance levels several notches.
The evening gets under way with the overture from Gypsy, allowing the London Concert Orchestra under the direction of Richard Balcombe to flex its muscles. It is composed of fine musicians, but one feels that it is a pared back orchestra, for example, the brass section sometimes feels underpowered. However, this is rarely an issue when one has the soaring voices of the vocalists on which to concentrate. Balcombe conducts with a quiet easy-going authority. Eschewing the traditional baton, he coaxes notes forth from the various sections.
The next offering, You’re the Tops, from Anything Goes, allows the performers to set a marker as to the quality of the vocal performances to follow. All four are on stage sharing the singing honours and, despite the song’s frothy lyrics, including no fewer than 37 rhyming comparisons, it quickly becomes clear that we are in the presence of great interpreters of song. During the evening, each has the opportunity to impress individually and in, it seems, almost every possible combination.
The first to demonstrate her solo singing ability is Summer Strallen with another piece from Anything Goes: I Get a Kick Out of You. Her vocals are understated but effective, simply sung but heartfelt. She is sassy performing I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair and suitably defiant but also anguished with Take That Look Off Your Face from Tell Me On A Sunday, part of a short tribute to Andrew Lloyd-Webber in the second half.
Kerry Ellis starts her solo campaign with Big Spender from Sweet Charity, a song that will forever be associated with Shirley Bassey in the minds of many. Ellis sings it upbeat, demonstrating a voice of great power and purity, a superb interpretation. Her purity of voice is again to the fore in the rather more gentle but sweet Getting to Know You. Her performance of Memory is a true showstopper.
Graham Bickley shows his mettle with I Won’t Send Roses from Mack and Mabel,but his Empty Chairs at Empty Tables truly pulls the heartstrings shortly before the interval. His voice is rich and full of warm overtones, which are demonstrated in the stirring The Impossible Dream after the interval.
Tim Howar’s voice is lighter and more lyrical, perfectly suited to the beautiful lyrics of On the Street Where You Live and, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, to the ballad from Grease: Hopelessly Devoted to You.
When singing together, the voices of the singers blend well, combining individual aspects of power and sensitivity. So In Love from Kiss Me, Kate is quite beautiful in the hands of Bickley and Strallen, while the undertones of perhaps unrequited love are clear in All I Ask of You from The Phantom of the Opera, from Howar and Ellis.
The program as a whole seems to have been chosen specifically to showcase the talents of the singers and their voices. After a first half showcasing their talents and closing with a standing ovation for a powerful four-handed One Day More, the second, after tributes to Lloyd-Webber and Stephen Sondheim, moves up a gear becoming rockier, closing with items from Grease and the ultimate feelgood closerYou Can’t Stop the Beat from Hairspray.
A great remedy for the post-Christmas blues, The Sound Of Musicals is on a short tour and well worth catching.
Reviewed on 29 December 2015 and on tour | Image: Contributed