“Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.”
Grateful, featuring Anton Stephans is billed as an evening of uplifting gospel and musical theatre, taking place at Cadogan Hall with numerous special guests from the West End, a 20-piece band and ably assisted by the West End Gospel Choir, a collective of performers from a range of West End shows and the music circuit. Stephans is such an irrepressible and charming presence on stage that one imagines this evening would have been a success anyway, even without the harrowing circumstances that led us here.
For the past two and a half years, Stephans has been battling horrendous illness with tumours on his brain and adrenal glands and incredibly gloomy prognoses, but fortunately he has fought the battle well and is now making a full recovery. Hence his return to the stage here to return to his love of performing and pass on his incredible enthusiasm and joie de vivre and the message of the power of positive thinking. He has said that the programme of songs that have moved him and have significance in his life came to him in his darkest moments and consequently it chose to inspire and uplift, to celebrate life and love rather than dwell on the sad times. And boy, did it inspire the audience at Cadogan Hall and uplift them right out of their seats and onto their feet, clapping and cheering and singing along to what was a truly joyous occasion.
It was all good, excellent in fact, but a duet with Hannah Waddingham on ‘Come Together’, a song from Jason Robert Brown’s album Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes was hands down one of the best performances I have seen this year. Starting off in a wonderfully theatrical manner with Waddingham appearing on a balcony above the stage in a vampish red dress and belting out the gospel-inflected opening, she then emerged onstage to complete the song with the choir in full voice too. They are good friends and their chemistry was plain to see and just wonderful to behold and I could have listened to them ad lib at the end of the song for days, they need to record this duet and sharpish!
Trying to pick highlights from the rest of the show is incredibly difficult as I enjoyed all of it so much, Cassie Compton’s duetting on the hymn ‘It Is Well With My Soul’ was intensely beautiful, her slight frame belies the considerable power of her voice and Melanie La Barrie’s rendition of ‘Easy To Be Hard’ would have surely secured her a place in the cast of Hair had it continued to run. The mixture of gospel and musical theatre is not one that you might think would work, but as Stephans pointed out, so much of music is about story-telling and personal connections so moving from gospel number to Sweet Charity to hymns made perfect sense as we saw how much each of the numbers meant to him. The anecdotes that peppered the show were also great fun, mixing in showbiz name-dropping with truly inspirational nuggets about dealing with the reality of serious illness.
The show constantly caught fire with the upbeat numbers that involved the entire company: ‘Brotherhood of Man’ featuring Tim Oxbrow sharing vocals with Stephans and Rebecca Caine providing her Jonas-baiting dulcet tones was a chirpy pleasure enhanced with a tap dancer and ‘The Flesh Failures’ and ‘Blow Gabriel Blow’ were also delights. Of the solo numbers, ‘Pure Imagination’ was tender and beautiful and heartfelt and the closing ‘Run Till I Finish’ had a huge emotional punch, but there really were no duff moments in the programme with everyone on top form and giving it their all.
The West End Gospel choir, under Lisa Thorner’s enthusiastic direction, provided great animated back-up with maybe 7 of them pulling double duty as backing singers on numbers which didn’t require the full choir and providing the odd solo riff or three. I didn’t catch many of their names but Keisha Amponsa Banson was one who did stand out for me. And the band, under Dougie Freeman’s musical direction, was simply superb throughout, with Charlie Laffer’s spellbinding guitar-playing in ‘Friendly Pressure’ being a highlight for me.
The evening, whilst also marking something of a comeback for Stephans, was also a fundraiser for the Intermission Youth Theatre, a charity he is involved with reaching out to disaffected teenagers and using drama as a tool to engage them. Sylvia Sims, ambassador for the theatre group, gave a wonderfully self-deprecating speech about the good work they do. So if you’re interested in finding out more about Intermission Youth Theatre and helping them out then visit their website at www.iyt.org.uk
Oh Happy Day, with choir
I Can See It (from The Fantasticks)
Blue Skies (Irving Berlin) with Daniel Koek
Not Afraid, with backing singers
Pure Imagination (from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)
He’s A Misstra Know It All (Stevie Wonder) with Robert Rees
Friendly Pressure, with backing singers
Coming Together (from Jason Robert Brown’s album Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes) with Hannah Waddingham and the choir
Satan’s Little Lamb
Soul Survivor, with Ian Carlyle and the choir
There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This (from Sweet Charity)
Brotherhood of Man (from How To Succeed in Business with Really Trying) with Tim Oxbrow, Rebecca Caine and the boys
Easy To Be Hard (from Hair) solo from Melanie La Barrie
Someday We’ll All Be Free
It Is Well Within My Soul, with Cassie Compton
The Flesh Failures (Let The Sunshine In) (from Hair) with Edward Baruwa, Nigel Richards and the choir
Grateful, with Jon Lee
It Ain’t Ova, with the choir
Run Till I Finish
Blow Gabriel Blow (from Anything Goes) with the choir