2016: Top Ten Musicals – West End

2016 has not been a golden year for new productions of musicals on the West End, but there have been some real highs nevertheless.

But some sleight of hand has been necessary in order to make a top ten list. Jesus Christ Superstar was not technically playing in the West End, but it is certainly arguable that the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre should be included in the West End inner circle, given its budgets and audience capacity.

Equally, Audra MacDonald’s concert was not really a musical, but it certainly counted as one of the greatest nights of musical theatre in the year, even though it too did not have a home in a West End theatre. The same could be said of Bernadette Peters’ concert.

So, mea culpa out of the way, this is the list, highly personal and just including shows I saw in 2016.

10.     Guys and Dolls – Rebel Wilson

Guys and Dolls

Take a film star. Add a major musical from Broadway’s Golden era. Shake with a successful revival production. Enjoy if you can. Such is the lot of those who attended the Phoenix Theatre in London to see Rebel Wilson’s Guys and Dolls. You experienced something odd and surprising, pleasurable in unexpected ways. Wilson, a fearless and inventive performer, capable of wily ingenuity, channelled a seriously smutty undertone beneath a ditzy, girlie sheen of ample femininity.

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9.    Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls

When Amber Riley first sang “the” song from Dreamgirls on Glee, it proved she was a real talent. When Amber Riley sings “the” song in Dreamgirls at the end of Act One of the musical, live, the Savoy erupts into a tsunami of barely controlled adulation and respect. It is one of many extraordinary moments in a production which teems with them. It may have taken Dreamgirls decades to get to the West End, but it has been worth the wait.

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8.    Bernadette Peters in Concert

Bernadette Peters

Those legs. That dress. Those breasts. That hair. That slinky, sultry, seductive voice. Bernadette Peters In Concert – A performer of limitless energy, unifying sexuality, and sheer chutzpah. A legend. A diva. A goddess of the stage. Literally, there is no one like Bernadette Peters.

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7.    Audra MacDonald in Concert

6 time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald gave her first concert performance in London in over a decade in January. From the first note of her glorious opening number, When Did I Fall In Love? (from the overlooked, under-rated and almost never revived Pulitzer prize winning Fiorello, lyrics and music by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock) to her blissful and reflective version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, McDonald was a complete superstar, effortlessly telling deeply affecting stories through song, connecting intuitively with her audience and singing with a ferocity, a gentle touch, a supremely confident and peerlessly matched tone that simply took one’s breath away. Time after time.

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6.    Funny Girl – Natasha Barnes

Barnes was an unqualified triumph in the role of Fanny Brice: fresh, invigorating, funny, and completely adorable. She made the entire company shine in reflected glory and all of the cast worked extremely well with her, especially Darius Campbell and Marilyn Cutts, who, in my opinion, gave far, far better performances with Barnes. Nothing rained on her parade.

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5.    Mrs Henderson Presents

At the Noél Coward Theatre there played a slightly recast, slightly rejigged version of the musical Bath enjoyed last year. The tinkering with the material was all for the better; the changes in cast were both good and bad. But, overall, this was a tighter, more tautly and finely tuned version. Those that were excellent before brightened and bloomed, finding greater depth, range and exhilaration in their characters. On the West End, Mrs Henderson Presents was a total, captivating triumph.

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4.     Half A Sixpence

Flash, Bang, Wallop…three words that encapsulate the Cameron Mackintosh/Chichester Festival Theatre revival/revision of Half A Sixpence. The production is flash (fabulous costumes, choreography and casting (mostly)), the score goes off with a bang (expert playing and singing ensures the augmented score sparkles with effervescence as new and old songs fizz in a seamless musical cocktail) and text revisions ensure the audience gets a collective comic wallop over the head. It might not be subtle or profound but Half A Sixpence is stuff and nonsense of the easily enjoyable kind. What a picture! The West End transfer has polished that picture nicely.

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3.     Jesus Christ Superstar

If you are the kind of person who doesn’t understand why Sirs Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice are heroes in the annals of musical theatre, Timothy Sheader’s crackling and energetic revival of Jesus Christ Superstar ought to have brought you enlightenment. It was bursting with ideas, full of magnificent performances, fuelled by Drew McOnie’s spirited and sexy choreography and, most importantly, fabulously sung. Heaven, in fact.

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2.     Show Boat

The transfer of this marvellous production of Show Boat from Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre to the New London Theatre was an unqualified success. Not every transfer works, but this one did. What worked before still worked – exceptionally well. The treatment of racism was more intimate, more confronting. Equally, the romance and the comedy shtick was more naturally involving. All of this ensured that the Show is definitely to the fore in this Show Boat.

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1.     Sunset Boulevard

Glenn Close, totally reimagining Norma Desmond in the revival of Sunset Boulevard, directed by Lonny Price, with assistance from Matt Cowart, and brilliantly choreographed by Stephen Mear – undoubtedly the musical theatre event of the year. There has never been a production of Sunset Boulevard this classy, this beautifully costumed and staged, this gloriously sung, or supported by such a rhapsodic orchestra. This was as close to musical theatre heaven as it is possible for Sunset Boulevard to ascend.

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