Alex Parker is the real deal.
With the triumphant production of Gypsy having closed the night before, it took courage to open a concert with the faultless overture of that great musical. But if there was a slight disappointment with that production of Gypsy, it lay in the composition of the orchestra. Not enough Strings. Here, Parker assembled a brilliant group of professional musicians who played superbly, with a strong contingent of string players. The result was astonishingly, overwhelmingly impressive.
The Strings provided lush, lilting and fluid support and texture to the music. The West End simply doesn’t hear playing as good as this, with an orchestra of size not dependent on click-tracks and programmed synthesisers, nearly often enough. Broadway compositions are transformed when Strings are properly in play. So it was with the Gypsy overture here: the playing was exuberant and stylish, ebullient at the top with the Brass/Wind in exemplary form, thrilling as though this was a premiere of a new work. It grabbed your attention, quickened your pulse, set your toes tapping – everything you could ever want from a musical prelude.
Indeed, so good was the playing, centred on Parker enthusiastically (somewhat akin to Bernstein’s conducting, Parker was personifying the music, expressing its beats and rhythms through his whole body) driving the orchestra to play so magnificently, that it was nigh but impossible to resist resenting Janie Dee when she appeared on stage to sing, cutting the Gypsy overture short. No fault of Dee’s – but I doubt anyone at the Palace Theatre did not want Parker’s orchestra to finish that Gypsy overture.
This is Kings of Broadway, a concert celebrating the work of Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman and Jule Styne, three men, two of whom are still living, who can justifiably claim to be Broadway royalty. With direction from Alastair Knights and choreography from Emma Annetts, this was a bright, breezy, and occasionally truly wonderful evening, with morsels of musical genius from each of the three “Kings”. What set it apart from any other recent concert was the spirit and musicality that Parker brought to proceedings – the work from the orchestra was extraordinary throughout, especially given how little time everyone had available for rehearsal. Yes, there were the odd glitches, but nothing to distract or diffuse the glow of really great orchestral playing of Broadway tunes.
The greatest disappointment here lay with Andy Josephs’ sound design and George Bound’s lighting design. Even taking into account the shortage of preparation time, there were too many mis-steps here to be lightly excused. The balance between singers and orchestra was often out of kilter; this was not a question of Parker’s orchestra being overwhelming – it was that, at times, the levels given to the vocal lines were not sufficient. It improved a deal in Act Two, but even then, mystifyingly on occasion, simply not enough support was given to the vocalists. The lighting was similarly patchy, with soloists often moving out of the light, once or twice into near blackness.
Concerts such as this can really shine a light on emerging talent, as well as allowing seasoned professionals a chance to let loose and indulge in numbers they may never be called upon to deliver in a production, or to effortlessly deliver standards that suit them like perfectly bespoke couture. Kings of Broadway, in keeping with its trio theme, featured performances that covered all of that ground. Parker’s selection of songs was eclectic and wide-ranging, with numbers from lesser known works (these days) such as Anyone Can Whistle (but not that famous title song),Mrs Santa Claus, The West Point Story, Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol, Darling of the Day andHallelujah Baby! as well as very popular numbers from hits like Mame, Follies, La Cage Aux Folles, West Side Story and Hello Dolly. You certainly could not accuse Parker of pedestrian programming.
Another thing which concerts like this can offer is the chance for an inspired mash-up and there were no disappointments here. Fusing Don’t Rain On My Parade, Before The Parade Passes Byand A Parade In Town, this was a clever, and musically demanding, finale for Act One, with each of Caroline Sheen, Zoe Doano and Celinde Schoenmaker in lustrous form, making the work of the three composers shine in a new and interesting way.
In an evening with many highlights, Caroline O’Connor stood out with her achingly compelling rendition of Time Heals Everything and her jaunty, vivacious Broadway Baby. Two standards from different ends of the performance spectrum, but both easily within O’Connor’s considerable range, and performed with consummate skill.
Equally compelling was Richard Fleeshman who gave a knock-out turn (as Buddy from Follies) delivering Buddy’s Blues with real comic flair, vigour and charm. For a man known more for his romantic lead role status, this was a revelatory performance which showed a completely different side to his considerable talents. Diction and timing were at a premium.
Jack North was in superb form throughout the evening, whether in support role as dancer and back-up singer, or in leading the action. His delightful old fashioned song and dance routine with Anna O’Byrne, Let’s See What Happens, from the scandalously forgotten gem Darling Of The Day, was utterly delicious, with both performers at united, glowing and stylish ease. Glorious too was his inspired and infectious delivery of Put On Your Sunday Clothes which closed the concert, and saw him jauntily bringing the entire company to a glorious, united sense of brio and joy.
Fra Fee and Laura Tebbutt mastered the intricacies and difficult music of Move On; Andy Conaghan sang Mack’s Movies Were Movies with unerring aplomb; Janie Dee gave a delightful audition for the role of Joanna in Company with her own Desperate Housewives take on Ladies Who Lunch (a triumph in every way); Nadim Naaman rendered a thoughtful and touching rendition of Mack’s hometruth aria, I Won’t Send Roses; Laura Pitt-Pulford showed her dazzling belt and fierce pipes in two quite different numbers, Wherever He Ain’t and People, both of which were delivered with idiosyncratic gusto; Laura Tebbutt sparkled with her gorgeous delivery ofDiamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend (despite some odd staging); and Anna O’Byrne was bewitching, complete with a Princess dress that showed off her Princess complexion and skin perfectly, as the pondering Cinderella from Into The Woods– a poised and graceful delivery ofSteps Of The Palace.
The big company/ensemble numbers were terrific: It’s Today, Company, Being Alive, La Cage Aux Folles and Put On Your Sunday Clothes. Annetts’ snappy, camp choreography added to the splendid blend of perfectly dressed stars and will-be-stars, and the evening was really at its most spellbinding when large numbers of these gifted performers were in full swing.
Naaman and Jordan Lee Davies placed a marker in the sand for a production of La Cage Aux Folles in twenty years’ time: allowing for their relative youth, both were in great form as Georges and Albin here. Davies sang I Am What I Am with utter conviction, a palpable sense of rage and defiance building throughout his delivery. It was very affecting. Both performers have excellent voices and both know how to use them intelligently and with real style.
The evening would have benefited from a more coherent through-line: a narrator or series of narrators who could set the scene for songs and performers would have been a simple addition, but one that would have reaped real dividends. Anticipation is part of the pleasure in concerts such as these. Knights needed to be more inventive in relation to some of the staging and every now and then there was an acute sense that performers were doing their “own thing” rather than participating in a devised programme of work. Partly, no doubt, that will be due to a lack of rehearsal time, but partly it was about Knights’ vision and control here. Buddy’s Blues and Let’s See What Happens demonstrated how clever Knights’ take could be.
One thing which radiated from the stage was a sense of warmth and togetherness: a lot of the performers here have worked, together, with Parker before and there is a developing sense of “company” about them. New performers to the mix were heartily embraced.
True – there were some flat performances, some songs delivered in a key other than the original, some people trying material slightly beyond their vocal abilities, some people worrying too much about how they looked and not enough about what they are singing and why, and some people coasting along. But these are not the memories which persist.
No. Those belong to Parker and his gifted orchestra and his perfect understanding of the musicality of Broadway. In short time, Parker could easily be the West End’s own King of Broadway.