Jason Robert Brown In Concert Royal Festival Hall 26 May 2015
Jason Robert Brown is like the ugly duckling of Broadway composers – some love him because of his failings; some hate him for that or another reason; some love him unreasonably, compulsively, just because he is the ugly duckling; but most people interested in Broadway see him as a Swan in waiting. When will his day come?
This is a man who has won three Tony Awards, two for Bridges of Madison County (a masterpiece of a score by any measure – read our review here) and one for Parade (another masterpiece). And yet…somehow he is generally regarded as not quite in the major league. Probably, this is because he has not had shows that have run for years on Broadway – but, then, neither has Sondheim and no one questions his supremacy.
Brown has been a victim of circumstance. His full length shows have never had immediate appeal; they have been slow burners, garnering cult-like followings over time. Sometimes his shows have not had the right director, sometimes not the right cast, but most of the time they have had the right music. Complex, musically intricate, touches of jazz, blues and pop, sometimes pastiche, sometimes specific – Brown has written single songs, chorales, song cycles and full length shows. And often great, insightful lyrics. He has been prodigious in composing great material and, rightly, he has a solid following.
The London contingent of that following turned out in some force at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday for a concert of Brown’s work. With musical direction from Brown and Torquil Munro, an eighteen piece orchestra (including Brown’s New York drummer of choice) and a dazzling array of British talent, the concert promised much and delivered a great night of musicality, including some thrilling singing.
Watching Brown perform with an orchestra, surrounded by terrific local talent, crystallised why he may not be as popular as he deserves to be. Brown is a gifted composer, a superb orchestrator, a sublime accompanist, an insightful and committed performer of his music – but, he does not have the vocal range and power that he thinks he does. His songs are always better understood, have more appeal, when sung by others.
Brown started and concluded the concert with numbers he sang himself. The first was I Love Betsy, the opening number of Honeymoon In Vegas, Brown’s last Broadway show. It’s a great, perky, funny and romantic song – and when sung by Rob McLure on Broadway was genuinely uplifting and engaging. Brown could not make it resonate in the same way. Equally, the fabulous song, Someone To Fall Back On, was Brown’s finale. It was Brown’s recording of that song which first brought it to prominence, but when you have heard performers like David Burnham sing the song, Brown’s version pales. Either Oliver Thomsett or Sean Palmer, both of whom shared the stage with Brown at various times, could have delivered vocally stronger versions. If there was an avoidable disappointment in the evening, it was Brown singing his own songs.
The biggest issue in this regard involved Brown’s performance of a new song, Melinda, from an as yet untitled musical about life in New York in the 70s, at a time where various musical styles (Disco and Salsa being just two of them) collided, creating what Brown described as a “Beirut” effect. The song itself was terrific, a fusion of styles and energies quite unlike anything Brown has hitherto written and heralds the distinct possibility of a terrific dance musical – but it needs a clearer, clarion vocal line and crisper diction.
But, overall, the thrills outweighed the slightly underwhelming effect of Brown’s vocal skills, not the least because he is an experienced performer who knows how to tap into the emotional connective tissue of his material. He can sell his numbers – for sure. But others can both sing and sell, and this concert was awash with such talent.
The unstoppable, extraordinary Cynthia Erivo proved, twice, what a potent combination Brown’s music and lyrics can be in the hands of a singer whose voice can electrify every note. Her rendition of Stars And The Moon was perfectly judged, poetical and gorgeous in every way, each word ablaze with intense feeling, each note true and rich. But her staggeringly powerful I Can Do Better Than That served as the 11 o’clock number here and, quite rightly, brought the house down and forced Erivo to take more bows than she seemed to think she deserved. She was wrong – her delivery of that song was the killer moment of the evening, an evening with plenty of other supernova moments.
Amy Booth-Steel provided a tantalising glimpse of Honeymoon In Vegas (a show which would have done better on Broadway with a better cast) with her touching delivery of Anywhere But Here. Oliver Thomsett, who has grown in confidence and vocal maturity, belted out his part of the splendid The River Won’t Flow. He had terrific support from backing vocalists (including the gifted Claudia Kariuki) but Matt Henry was not quite in his class as the other soloist.
Despite many jokes from Brown about the lack of rehearsal time and complaints that everything was mashed together, there was little sign of this in the performances. Laura Pitt-Pulford, graceful and stunning as ever, Bertie Carvel and Oliver Thomsett provided a perfect example of why Parade won Brown a Tony Award. Their work on The Old Red Hills Of Home, You Don’t Know This Man, It’s Hard To Speak My Heart and This Is Not Over Yet was spine-tingling and brought an end to the first Act in a superb, dramatic and vocally flawless way.
Act Two saw some wonderful material from Brown’s artistic triumph, The Bridges Of Madison County, the source of his other Tony Awards. Five songs were covered, with the highlight being Sean Palmer and Caroline Sheen, heartbreaking and achingly good in their delivery of Before And After You and One Second And A Million Miles. The audience lapped up this material – hopefully, a canny producer will ensure London sees a proper production of The Bridges Of Madison County soon (ideally with Hannah Waddingham and Palmer).
There were some excerpts from the National Youth Musical Theatre company’s production of 13, including a star turn from Eleanor Worthington-Cox (What It Means To Be A Friend) and, unsurprisingly given the movie release, a portion of the concert was devoted to The Last Five Years, probably Brown’s most enduring hit thus far. Booth-Steel shimmered with Still Hurting and Thomsett’s Moving Too Fast was magnificent. He had the daunting task of following Erivo’s I Can Do Better Than That, but he more than acquitted himself well.
The thunderous applause and long standing ovation at the end of proceedings produced an encore from Brown – the perennial crowd-pleaser Caravans Of Angels, led by Brown with the audience joining for the chorus on cue. It was a warm and inclusive finale to a starry exercise in just what good music Brown has produced and is capable of producing.
Brown all but begged any budding producer in the audience to bring his shows to London – he shouldn’t have to do that. The National could and should stage The Bridges of Madison County; the Old Vic or Jamie Lloyd’s company could easily do Honeymoon In Vegas; and anyone can do Parade or The Last Five Years because they are established works. All they need is excellent casting.
This concert showed how fulfilling Brown’s music is in the hands of real and gifted singers. What more encouragement do Producers need?