Andrew Lloyd Webber is the first to acknowledge that his music is anathema to some audiences. If you don’t like it, get out now, the composer jokily declaims from a throne in a video appearance opening this celebratory concert. Otherwise, just sit back and abandon your defences to the music of the night, as songs from Joseph, Starlight Express, Phantom and other hits are delivered in the round without so much as a dreamcoat, a pair of roller skates or a mask on the revolve stage.
Nikolai Foster’s stripped-back but inventive production is full of riches, performed by three former Evitas, two Phantoms and the newly graduated Shem Omari James. A seventh cast member, Karen Mavundukure, withdrew due to injury, sparking some last-minute changes. The six actors start by removing dust sheets from storage trunks and perform a cappella snatches of the songs beneath a low-hanging, crisscrossed lighting rig that resembles an art installation. When the band breaks out the opening of Superstar, the rigging ascends, the lights go on and you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s no better way to blow off the lockdown cobwebs and resurrect live theatre.
Filmed around Leicester, the composer’s video links offer insights and anecdotes. We learn how seeing a disastrous Judy Garland concert inspired Evita, how Sunset Boulevard’s With One Look began as a tune about The Little Mermaid and how Cats is an exception to the musical-theatre rule that a great story can carry an OK score but not vice versa. By the time the show ends with a gleefully raucous Stick It to the Man from School of Rock, you’re thinking not just of Lloyd Webber’s campaigning for music education but also the origins of Joseph in a 20-minute piece for school and the defiant spirit and outsider status that links renegade teacher Dewey Finn to the lead characters in so many of his other musicals. Those include his new Cinderella, which is given a sneak preview here with the inclusion of the rocky, rebellious anthem Bad Cinderella.
Ria Jones reprises her role as Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, recently filmed at Curve, and again elegantly conveys the gestural precision of silent-screen acting. The fact that she also sings a spine-tingling Memory from Cats means that Grizabella’s faded dreams and bid for a new start are echoed when Jones sings Desmond’s comeback fantasy. Desmond’s delusion and isolation then reverberate through a selection of Phantom and Love Never Dies songs, which have Tim Rogers and Tim Howar combining the right physicality with powerhouse vocals. Jessica Daley is superb as Christine, the band play as if possessed and there’s a blizzard of dry ice.
Daley excels across the two-and-a-half octave range of Unexpected Song and, standing in for Mavundukure on I Don’t Know How to Love Him, gives a sweetly breezy version, not dwelling on that song’s torment. But Matthew Spencer-Smith’s band wrings the despair out of the succeeding Gethsemane and is especially good during the careening Sunset Boulevard Car Chase, with James inhabiting the ragged desperation of screenwriter Joe Gillis.
It’s a joy, after all the streamed and socially distanced musical theatre concerts made up mostly of solo performances, to see dramatic scenes created through songs with multiple voices. If Ben Cracknell’s light show for the Cats overture feels a little like being caught in the headlights, elsewhere his design adds an extra thrill, particularly to Variation 23, performed by cellist Natalie Hancock. In Colin Richmond’s set design, the costume trunks form a podium for Madalena Alberto’s fantastic Evita and a locomotive for Howar’s nimble Skimbleshanks.
The inclusion of the international cast’s personal memories of hearing and performing the good Lord’s songs is neatly done and never gushing. The inclusion of local singer Alyshia Dhakk for a moving Pie Jesu and Curve Young Company for the finale make this a celebration not just of Lloyd Webber but of Leicester, too.