The Best Of British Musicals at Sage, Gateshead on 29th March 2015

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Here was a chance for non purist and ‘popular classical’ fans to catch the Royal Northern Sinfonia in concert and I decided to take my two teenage sons along in order to broaden their horizons a little. They’d seen and loved Les Miserables before (and performed in an amateur Oliver) but their experience of musical theatre is not vast and they’d never witnessed a full orchestra in concert.

Tonight’s show teamed the orchestra with four vocalists of great experience in Graham Bickley, Ricardo Alfonso, Abbie Osmon and Sophie-Louise Dann, with David Firman taking the conductor’s baton. This was billed as ‘a celebration of British musicals from the era of Gilbert & Sullivan, right through to Lloyd-Webber blockbusters’, though quite how ‘British’ was defined is a bit of a mystery.

Divided into two Acts the first drew heavily on musicals from the late 19th century to 1960’s and so some of the songs were unfamiliar to me and the teens. I worried that this might lead to boredom on their part but they enjoyed the whole hour with particular highlights being Alfonso’s passionate rendition of ‘Shine Through My Dreams’ and Bickley’s ‘I’m Reviewing The Situation’ from Oliver that boasted a menacing opening from the RNS and a wonderfully emotional violin solo from the ever impressive Bradley Creswick.

Act 1 ended amusingly with David Firman having to dash back to the dressing room to collect his score for Act closer ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ from Half A Sixpence, leaving Bickley to ‘fill’ and like a true professional he managed with ease.

If Act 1 had belonged to the men then Act 2 appeared to be the ladies’ following a fantastic performance of the Dickson/Paige classic ‘I Know Him So Well’ from the musical Chess.

From the midpoint of Act 2 however it was clear that everyone was upping their game. Perhaps they were more familiar with the material or perhaps there’s something about modern musicals that lends itself to modern performance; namely emotion. Some of the older songs in Act 1 sound like ‘ditties’ compared to weightier material from Blood Brothers or Miss Saigon and the vocalists clearly relished the opportunity to let loose and bare their souls.

Alfonso stunned with ‘Til I Hear You Sing’ from Love Never Dies whilst Bickley was brilliant with ‘Music Of The Night’ from Phantom Of The Opera demonstrating a range and power that during Act 1 had seemed unlikely.

Dann’s best moment by far was the stirring ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ from Blood Brothers backed by an ever louder and more urgent RNS. The orchestra was similarly fierce during the closing of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ which left only a medley of songs from Les Miserables, much to the kids’ delight.

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Up to this point Osmon had sung well but without particularly impressing; note perfect but lacking strength and displaying a personality that might have seemed a little fake at times. But singing ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ she brought powerful emotion and intensity and for me this was the standout performance of the evening. It’s a shame that it led straight into Alfonso’s ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’ thus robbing her of what undoubtedly would have been one of the night’s biggest ovations. Les Mis isn’t part of Osmon’s CV but if this performance is an indicator then she would certainly make an excellent Fantine, or Eponine for that matter.

‘Do You Hear The People Sing’ closed the show and (as ever with that song it seems) brought the house down. The orchestra and vocalists did not leave the stage but instead treated the ever more enthusiastic full house to a two-song medley of ABBA hits ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Mamma Mia’. The kids had enjoyed themselves and Dad was happy. The Britishness of the programme might be in some doubt but the show could reasonably lay claim to the ‘best’ tag.

Reviewer and Photographer: Russell Poad

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