The evening was a benefit for the Help for Heroes military charity.
There are few modern composers of the musical theatre style better at crafting a heartfelt torch song than New York’s Scott Alan. He is returning to London on March 13 for a single night of performance at the Delfont Room in the Prince of Wales Theatre, but before then a group of young performers brought some of his songs to life in a patchy concert, The Distance We Have Come… The Music of Scott Alan at the New Players theatre yesterday.
One of the major reasons why Alan’s songs have gained such traction among musical theatre performers is that so many fit into a certain template: starting slow, gentle and contemplative, they’ll proceed in the same vain while slowly building towards a final chorus that allows the singer to demonstrate a great belt. And this presents two problems that this concert couldn’t quite escape. Firstly, ordering songs in the programme to provide maximum interest for the audience is essential – and second, all the planning in the world will go to pot if the singer blows the number’s big moment.
Unfortunately, the first act of the concert fell foul of both of these problems at points. It is a mark of some of the performers’ relative inexperience that several had a tendency to overdo that crucial crescendo into the upper register, which can so easily derail the tunefulness of an otherwise pleasant performance. After a couple of such moments, it was a relief to have the more experienced Gina Beck (currently onstage in the West End as Christine in Phantom of the Opera) sing Always in a vocal style that was much simpler, and all the more effective for that.
In terms of pacing, it’s hard going from something that builds up into a life-affirming celebration, such as Beth Morrissey’s rendition of If I Own Today (featuring a great choral arrangement, courtesy of musical director Greg Arrowsmith) only to fall back into the gentle, tentative first bars of Blessing. It constantly felt as if a momentum was gathering pace, only for it to be quashed straight away — very frustrating as an audience member.
That sense of stop-and-start was accentuated by an almost laughably poor use of narration. Onstage host Sonia Strong was brought on between every number and had clearly been given a script which was little more than somebody taking a pair of scissors to the sleeve notes of Scott Alan’s two CDs. How much better it would have been to use her more sparingly, running two or three performances together, to allow the audience to concentrate on the music. Fewer scripted moments from the host would also provide an opportunity for the content of Strong’s script to receive some much-needed attention.
Narration issues notwithstanding, the pacing was vastly improved in the second act, starting with Alan’s sweetly comedic His Name performed by a perky Amelia Adams Pearce and building through Beth Morrissey’s Say Goodbye and an absolutely faultless rendition of Behind These Walls by Nicola Henderson.
I’m aware I’ve only mentioned some of the female performers until now. It’s odd – looking at the programme, the man who stood out the most was the singer with the least experience in musical theatre, the singularly-named Raff. While clearly nervous on stage, his vocal range and ability stood out. David Ribi was sweet as he charmingly conveyed the jilted boyfriend in Now, but needs to work on his onstage presence. Most disappointing of all was Adam Strong (who is also the show producer), if only because his vocal performances as the Prince in Leicester Square Theatre’s recent adult panto Sinderfella were highly accomplished, and he wasn’t able to deliver in the same way here.
While the crowd-pleasing The Distance You Have Come leant a triumphal air to conclude proceedings, it’s not really one that the show deserved. With a firm hand on the directorial tiller, some of the more glaring difficulties with the staging could have allowed the basic errors — be it song choice and order, hosting script, or the frankly appalling lighting and sound issues that dogged the whole evening — to be eradicated and given a better platform for new and emerging musical theatre talent.
As it was, at times it felt like the mood was better summed up not by the true closing number, but by the song which concluded act one: the pleading desparation of the wannabe pleading for their one big break, in I’m a Star. Some of the performers last night will be stars in future, I’m sure. But to do so, most will have to improve on their performances here.
PS: The tickets for last night’s concert were kindly provided by the show producers, Damson Productions. If you have any shows you want me to review on this blog, please contact me.
It was my first visit to Cadogan Hall, and to be honest I’m surprised at its use as a venue for this sort of event. The former church’s acoustics just don’t work for a small number of voices, even when amplified. I can see how choirs could really make use of the space acoustically, but individual voices or duets felt lost in the cavernous space.
That said, the selection of songs was superb: from the more well-known numbers including Blue Moon, Isn’t It Romantic, My Funny Valentine, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered and The Lady Is A Tramp to Thou Swell, What Can You Do With a Man? and There’s a Small Hotel, it was a great showcase for a songwriting partnership that helped define the modern musical.
Of the performers, Maria Friedman was, as one would expect, far and away the most effective, always able to get to the emotional heart of a song and bringing out every nuance. From the emotional complexity of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered to the amusing tale of a murderous, many times married vamp in To Keep My Love Alive, the show itself came alive whenever she was given a central role. For my tastes, though, that didn’t happen often enough, and her fellow performers struggled to match. In particular, Simon Green, who helped devise the show and also acts as narrator, struggled at times to hold a tune, while fellow performer Graham Bickley dried on two separate occasions at the start of the second act and never quite recovered.
Those criticisms aside, the musical selections more than compensated for the rough edges. The last concert in this run is on Sunday, and while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend rushing to buy a ticket, searching Amazon or iTunes for some Rodgers and Hart numbers would make for a fruitful weekend.