London Palladium, West End – 16 July 2016
Strictly speaking it should have been billed as “Ramin Karimloo and Broadgrass at the London Palladium” – then we might have anticipated the support act and late arrival of the West End and Broadway star known especially for having journeyed through pretty much every principal role in The Phantom of the Opera (and, of course, its sequel Love Never Dies) and Les Miserables though not, it has to be said, at the same time (I wouldn’t put it past him). Karimloo’s spectacular success in these iconic musicals was founded on an exceptional vocal reach with ringing falsettos and ethereal head-voice more than equal to anything Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schonberg could throw at him. But if you listened carefully there was always a twang to the sound and if you didn’t know of his love for Country and Bluegrass music you’d quite possibly have suspected it.
So enter Broadgrass, his band (Sergio Ortega, Alan Markley, Katie Birtill and his musical theatre compadre Hadley Fraser), and a hybrid name which might signal fusion but definitely not the intriguing and unlikely marriage of musical theatre and grass roots folksiness that was at the heart of this show. With banjo, guitars, fiddle and a cracking drummer in Birtill, Karimloo and his buddies kicked us back and forth from the country inflection of his own material to stagey show tunes reimagined. The collision of worlds was both happy and in some cases astonishingly affecting and even if the spirit of Richard Rodgers was undoubtedly rebelling against the jaunty take on “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’” (Rodgers HATED folk messing with the tempo and temper of his melodies) there was tangible harmony in the house.
It was a thrill to have Karimloo and Hadley Fraser’s rangey vocals so enticingly entwined (much hilarity when Fraser forgot the lyric of “Empty Chairs” from Les Mis – a role in which Karimloo had covered him) and to hear a number like “Anthem” from Chess reveal a new identity but one so clearly chiming with its lyric. “When I Hear You Sing” (the corking ballad from Love Never Dies) came early, just as it does in the show, and appealed to everyone who expected to hear it sung as well as those who welcomed a new angle on it. There was a more traditional staginess from guest Louise Dearman who looked dressed for another kind of show but sang the crap out of Scott Whittman and Marc Shaiman’s power ballad “Don’t Forget Me” from the cult TV series Smash. What a voice that is.
At 70 minutes it looked like the set (and show) was over when a worryingly slow return to the stage almost back-fired as the audience delirium started to fade – but if the last section of the show was intended to represent a series of encores it amounted to some 45 minutes of them. And the best was yet to come. There was an amazing arrangement with banjo and guitar of “Bring Him Home” which might have been written for Karimloo and, better yet, armed only with his guitar he unlocked a corruscating version of “Ol’ Man River” where the intensity of the lyric laid bare his qualities as an actor. That was pretty unforgettable. As was the inevitable “Music of the Night”, again hauntingly pared down to just him and Ortega’s guitar.
The final moment of the evening chimed with references to the troubled times we are living through and saw Karimloo return to the stage alone and jacketless, picked out of the darkness by a single spotlight, to sing a capella a traditional folksong proffering a simple plea to stop the wars and the bloodshed. The message hung there waiting for an answer. And he was gone.