CBSO Friday Night Classics: Best of the West End
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Conductor: Michael England
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brings the biggest West End hits sung by highly talented guest singers. With songs from The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Chicago, Mamma Mia!, Wicked and The Lion King this concert brings the best of musicals to Birmingham.
In the West End, orchestra sizes are often not huge and can be kept small for budgeting purposes: so hearing showtunes played by a full orchestra is a real treat. There are some timing issues, as the orchestra races ahead, or lags behind the vocalists. The vocalists do stand in front of the conductor with their backs to the orchestra, which explains this, and these moments are smoothly corrected as conductor Michael England rallies his troops, marshalling them with skill to ensure these hiccups effect the evening.
Though they may not quite have the finesse of the John Wilson Orchestra with this type of music, the CBSO swells in all the right places, and plays lyrically throughout. The Symphonic Suite of Jerry Herman’s Mack & Mabel is brilliantly performed – though it would have benefited from more than one saxophone.
I have had the pleasure of seeing Gina Beck perform in both Wicked and Phantom of the Opera in the West End, so to hear her recreate some of these performances is a delight. You can tell she knows the role of Glinda well in Popular (Wicked) having just played the role in the US National Tour. She has a wonderfully lyrical soprano voice and sings with great musicality and a beautiful tone – but also proves she is no one trick pony, adapting styles for All That Jazz (Chicago) and Cheek to Cheek (Top Hat).
There is a lot to be jealous of when it comes to Michael Xavier; he is a tall, strapping gent with a rich velvety, mellow voice. His Why God Why (Miss Saigon) is a powerhouse of a performance, he shows ease and charm as he glides through On The Street Where You Live (My Fair Lady) – his warm, open presence shines throughout.
Jacqui Scott also has a huge quantity of stage presence up her sleeve. Her money notes in Defying Gravity (Wicked) ring round Symphony Hall and her rendition of Memory (Cats) shows the more graceful quality of her vocals. Her acting is subtle and delicate, yet hits the right level of emotion when it needs to – the mark of an established concert vocalist.
Mark O’Malley has a very resonant voice, however his breathing and support in Music of The Night (Phantom of the Opera) and Stars (Les Miserables) left his voice sounding rather too strained, particular at the top of his range. However his Bui Doi (Miss Saigon) is rousing, showing that he is capable of accessing his upper register. Also, he makes a few lyrical mistakes, switching lines on more than one occasion, with such well known songs it is hard to get away with this.
Undoubtedly the musical giants that have shaped the West End over the years, but the concert is if anything slightly Lloyd Webber and Boubil & Schonberg heavy – with the focus clearly on long running shows this is understandable. However, one would perchance like a little more variety; perhaps more Sondheim or Rodgers & Hammerstein, and the absence of anything from West Side Story is a shame. The inclusion of One Day More (Les Miserables) is a crowd pleaser, but with only four vocalists it doesn’t achieve the sound required, so perhaps the song selection could have been a little more shrewd – but despite this, the concert is a huge success.
The evening ends with a wonderfully inventive arrangement of music from Mamma Mia for the finale, with which the performers take a few liberties and have great fun with; in less than serious fashion it might be added. This leaves the audience on a high and tapping their feet as they leave the auditorium.