Live and unplugged: Scott Alan & Pentatonix

I hope you’ll enjoy this beautiful a cappella track as much as I do:

I really, really like Scott Alan’s music. I believe I may have mentioned this once or twice. There’s something about his complete lack of reserve that makes his songs pack the sort of emotional punch that many British musical theatre composers struggle with.

That same intensity means a whole evening of his songs in concert form can be overpowering. It takes a deft hand to programme his songs in such a way that the introspective, even mournful, qualities of his most searing numbers are counterbalanced by the joy – and occasional frippery – that he also does well.

To see (or rather, hear) how it’s done, you can really look no further than Scott Alan Live, a double CD of Alan’s songs, recorded at New York’s Birdland club.

Continue reading “Live and unplugged: Scott Alan & Pentatonix”

Speaking of Scott Alan…

…as I was in my review of Sunday’s concert, I ought to point out his two CDs are available to buy.

If you haven’t heard his works before, the glories of Amazon.co.uk’s MP3 service means that you can hear preview tracks below (edit: doesn’t seem to work on Google Chrome for Mac – see below for some links):

If you want to buy full albums, you find the above widget a little confusing to navigate (I don’t blame you) or it doesn’t show up at all, try these links:

The Distance We Have Come… The Music of Scott Alan

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.

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.

Quick theatre round-up

I know I haven’t been blogging here much lately: these things tend to come in fits and spurts, so I may do some more posts for a bit. That said, it’s coming up to my annual attempt to participate in NaNoWriMo so I may go quiet on the blogging front again.

Anyway, over the last few weeks I’ve had quite a few theatre trips, either for work as a reviewer or — gasp! — for fun. I’m so far behind that I can’t possibly review everything I’ve seen, but here’s a quick round-up:

September 26: Into the Woods, Landor

My first encounter with this Sondheim classic, and it wasn’t a disappointment. One of the most imaginative uses of the Landor’s restricted space, turning the stage into a giant bookshelf from which the classic fairytale characters sprang to life. A joy — Robert McWhir and the Landor team are never better when dealing with Sondheim.

September 30: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical, Palace

My second time seeing this musical (with tickets won via a competition held by the show’s Twitter account). The set pieces are just bonkers (in a good way), the costumes as inventive as ever, and in many ways it’s the perfect way to take a film with lots of music and turn it into a stage musical.

A couple of niggles: Jason Donovan seemed, in a couple of numbers, to be slightly disinterested, almost as if he were channeling a slightly more interested version of Terence Stamp (who scowled through virtually every dance number in the film). The same malaise seemed to be affecting two of the three backing dancers, which made Zoe Birkett’s enthusiasm all the more bizarre.

There were a disconcerting number of hearty laughs from the audience at some of the demonstrations of homophobic abuse, which was worrying in a show which embraces difference. And the boy who was on when we saw it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the lad who played the role on our first visit, who was breathtakingly good (I wish I knew what either of their names were).

October 11: Scott Alan, Leicester Square Theatre

As a birthday treat to myself, I took Paul and myself to see New York-based composer Scott Alan in an all-too-rare visit to the UK. Scott played a number of his songs, accompanied by a number of West End luminaries, including Patina Miller (Sister Act), Ramin Karimloo (Phantom of the Opera), Oliver Thompsett (Wicked) and Alison Jiear (Jerry Springer: The Opera).

I love Scott’s music, so I was rapt from start to finish — even through the first number, when the sound blew midway, forcing Patina and Scott to skip to a hastily-improvised acoustic performance. However, Scott did tend to concentrate on the more intensely emotional numbers in his repertoire. While they are what he’s most known for and certainly part of the reason I adore his two albums Dreaming Wide Awake and Keys, the inclusion of one or two of his lighter numbers, such as Seventeen or What Was His Name?, would have provided a greater variation of pace, which I know Paul (a Scott Alan virgin) found a bit wearing by the end.

October 12: The Unimportant History of Britain, Above the Stag

I didn’t have this down in iCal and wasn’t reviewing it, so forgot about this when I first wrote up this post. Which maybe gives you a clue as to how memorable this sketch show, which purports to portray the history of Britain from the stone age to the present day, is.

Most sketch comedy is hit and miss — sadly, this was more miss, miss, miss, could be a hit with a bit more work, miss, miss.

October 14: The Woman in Black, Fortune Theatre

Ade and I won tickets to Susan Black’s thriller in the Show and Stay theatre pub quiz (a live version of their weekday quiz – follow @WestEndUpdates to join in Monday-Friday at 2.10pm). Ade had seen the production before with a different cast, so some of the “surprises” were not new to him — I don’t think it’s really a show you can see more than once. We were also quite far back in the stalls, such that we were bathed in permanent emergency lighting, which doesn’t really help the atmospherics.

And for me, any sense of suspense was completely eradicated by the behaviour of the large number of teenage girls in the audience. If they weren’t talking to each other in loud stage whispers, they were screaming at anything that might possibly be considered slightly creepy. It was happening so often that anything that could have genuinely be a frightening moment was drowned out. When you get an audience ready to scream at the dimming of the house lights at the start of Act 2 there really isn’t anything you can do.

Still, to the audience’s credit, no mobile phones went off during the show. Well, one did — but it belonged to a very embarrassed member of the front of house staff. Oops.

October 18: Crazy for You, London Palladium

A one-off charity performance, organised by Showtime Challenge. Although roles had been cast in advance and cast had received scripts and scores, rehearsals only started 48 hours before curtain up (while everyone was expected to be off-book by then, they had been forbidden from rehearsing with one another). Sunday’s show was a miracle by any standards.

In many ways, Crazy For You is a perfect show for the format, its “let put on a show right here” themes allowing for a few rough edges here and there. Not that it really needed them: there were a couple of moments where things headed towards the am-dram end of the scale, but mostly it was an incredibly impressive show by any standards. And the sight of 130 actors tap-dancing in unison on the Palladium stage is a sight that remains with you long after the final curtain call.

October 20: Silence! The Musical, Barons Court Theatre

My first exposure to this musical version of The Silence of the Lambs was in Above the Stag’s Blink!, which featured a couple of numbers. The show suffers from not quite deciding if it’s going to be a complete send-up of the film or to be a faithful retelling in song and dance. Other faults included burying the most able cast members in the chorus while giving the lead roles to people who struggled to live up to the iconic portrayals by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins on screen.

There were also some quite bizarre blocking decisions, including a whole solo number delivered with the singer’s back to the audience. A discussion with a couple of the production team suggested that at least one of the badly blocked moments was unintentional, but overall the impression one was left with was of wasted opportunity.

The Above the Stag theatre is mounting its own production in the New Year, with the assistance of some of the original New York team, so hopefully we’ll see a production which doesn’t succumb to the same pitfalls.

October 21: Sister Act, London Palladium

Back to the Palladium for Alan Menken’s new work. I think I’ll in all likelihood do a full review of this, as there’s a lot I want to say about it. For now — the first act drags a lot, never really taking flight until Raise Your Voice (the number in which Patina Miller’s Deloris Van Cartier takes charge of the nuns’ choir). The second act is joyous throughout, although the cartoon villainy of the gangster, Shank, and his henchmen, limits the range of the show.

October 22: Zombie Prom, Landor

The one piece of my recent theatre marathon to require a professional review for The Stage. I won’t repeat that here.

October 25: Proud to Say I Love You, Above the Stag

A revue of gay love songs from the shows, performed by my good friend Josh as part of a company of four. By turns side-splitting and heart-breaking, it was an hour of unalloyed pleasure. This was the last of a series of one-off performances: I hope that a longer residence might emerge in 2010, as it’s a cabaret show that deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

October 26: Scenes From My Love Life: A Year of Above the Stag, Above the Stag

A compilation of highlights from Above the Stag’s first year as a producing theatre. Excerpts from some of the musicals and plays that have occupied this new, adventurous space helped accentuate how adventurous the programming has been. We were also treated to a preview of Busted Jesus Comix, which opens next week, and Silence! — which, as I said above, also featured in Blink! before it returns in the New Year.

Which brings us more or less up-to-date, full review of Sister Act notwithstanding. Coming in the next few weeks: a gala concert showcasing the songwriting talents of Michael Bruce, Busted Jesus Comix at Above the Stag, Scouts in Bondage at the King’s Head, my umpteenth visit to Avenue Q, and no doubt much more.

Oh, and I was a guest on Nick Ferrari’s LBC radio show earlier this week. Really should write that up as a blog post, too… (Update: I have)