Curve Leicester – until 19 June 2021
When I was seven, my primary school did a production of Cats. You had to be in the years above to be in it but that didn’t stop me being consumed by it for weeks. I was obsessed with the songs (‘Skimbleshanks’ and ‘Mr Mistoffelees’ especially) and my dad got me the recording of the London production on VHS. During this concert Madalena Alberto tells a similar story of being introduced to Andrew Lloyd Webber (and musical theatre in general) this way.
I remember we got to watch one of the last dress rehearsals and, as we sat on the dusty parquet floor, I was mesmerised by how the school hall was transformed into the junk yard set. A stage was put up and a starlit backdrop covered the back wall, adorned with bin lids and incorporating the folded-up climbing apparatus which the cast used as part of the show.
The following year, I was similarly obsessed when we did Joseph and I was old enough to be in the cast. I remember being bumped up from Chorus member to one of the Brothers (Naphtali), watching the hall transform this time with a backdrop of pyramids and palm trees, and spending summer afternoons stopping after school to rehearse the show. Like many kids, these musicals were my gateway into a lifelong passion for theatre. It seems fitting then that as theatres reopen, Curve is welcoming back audiences (and hopefully enchanting a whole new generation of youngsters and future theatre-lovers) with a celebration of the UK’s most prolific musical theatre composer.
The Lord himself, appearing on screen at various locations throughout Leicester, guides us through the evening – a musical biography of sorts – moving chronologically (for the most part) through his oeuvre. The set pieces are punctuated by Lloyd Webber’s anecdotes: his and Tim Rice’s misguided foray into pop music with their song ‘Kansas Morning’ (which had later success when rewritten as ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ in Jesus Christ Superstar); the touching inspiration behind his Requiem; and how he persuaded the edgy hit-maker Hal Prince to take a gamble on directing a ‘High Romance’ (Phantom). These biographic morsels are an intriguing glimpse into musical theatre history and Lloyd Webber’s slightly awkward delivery ends up being rather endearing.
The music is a real treat for fans and newcomers alike. Best described as a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation, Lloyd Webber, along with director Nikolai Foster and co. have sifted through the back catalogue and selected only the gold standard of tunes. From the powerhouse aria ‘Gethsemane’, to the plaintive ‘Another Suitcase’, or the sensuous ‘The Music of the Night’ to the underrated ‘Take That Look Off Your Face’, the show revels in a variety of Lloyd Webber’s successes (Phantom; JCS; Cats; School of Rock; Evita; Sunset Boulevard), ensuring that every song is a certified banger.
That’s not to say the less successful productions are completely glossed over. Lloyd Webber is self-deprecatingly honest when addressing his shows that didn’t work, from the disaster that was the original Jeeves musical (later revised as By Jeeves in the 90’s) to the creative snags in the London premier of Love Never Dies (an issue that was fixed in the subsequent Australian production). However, despite his extensive body of work there were some misses that were conspicuously absent from comment *ahem*Stephen Ward*ahem*.
Lloyd Webber’s music is often criticised for being trite and overproduced. But the truth is, at his best as seen here, Lloyd Webber’s melodies soar and hit a musical sweet-spot that many have tried and failed to emulate. These songs have become standards for a reason and it was a pleasure to hear them performed by an excellent cast including three previous Evitas and two veteran Phantoms. A lush acapella opening features a clever mash-up of songs that the cast clearly have a lot of fun with. Despite suffering a leg injury Karen Mavundukure (a highlight of Curve’s production of The Color Purple) raises the roof with her storming rendition of ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’ from Starlight Express, and Jessica Daley demonstrates astonishing versatility and a vocal range to die for in her various roles, a particular highlight being her effortless performance of ‘Love Never Dies’. Tim Rogers belts out ‘Gethsemane’ before transforming into playful scamp, Mr Mistoffelees , and newcomer Shem Omari James brings a fresh exuberance to proceedings in his roles as Judas and Joe Gillis. Madalena Alberto and Ria Jones show us just why they have the reputation as some of the best of Lloyd Webber’s leading ladies with their charismatic turns as Eva Peron and Norma Desmond. Jones’ rendition of ‘Memory’ is chill-inducing, and incredibly poignant. Foster and co. capitalise on this moment with some simple but exquisite staging; Jones’ lament is accompanied by a single ‘ghost-light’, a theatrical superstition transformed into a symbol of hope. For theatre, and for the world, the lyrics ring true; ‘a new day is dawning’. Finally, special congratulations to Jennifer Lane Baker, as Trainee Director on the production she admirably stepped in for the injured Mavundukure during the ensemble numbers. Ah, I’ve missed the spontaneity of live theatre!
Since reconfiguring Curve’s stage and auditorium Ben Cracknell has truly come into his own with some outstanding lighting design. The immense rig is a character in its own right as the lights literally dance around us during the upbeat numbers, creating an exciting and immersive atmosphere. It was also lovely to see the return of the Curve Young Company in the larger ensemble pieces. The past year has been tough on everyone, but the sacrifices of the younger generation have been innumerable, and to see these teens thriving once again is exemplary of the hard work and pride that Curve takes in their commitment to the wider community.
It was a thrill to be back in the theatre, and we were thoroughly entertained and left Curve humming our favourite tunes. This celebration of a life’s work is representative of the resilience of the arts community. Long may music and stories continue to inspire and enchant audiences world-wide. Theatre is back and the only way is up!
The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber plays at Curve until 19th June.
For tickets and more information please visit: https://www.curveonline.co.uk/whats-on/shows/the-music-of-andrew-lloyd-webber/
Madalena Alberto and the cast of The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber
Credit: Ellie Kurttz