“But now and then he’ll do something wonderful”
Despite, or maybe because of, its richly diverse programming, the Royal Festival Hall has played host to two of my all-time favourite gigs ever: Röyksopp/Fever Ray and A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle. Not quite reaching those giddy heights but then again not so very far off was The Golden Age of Broadway, a celebration of the classic musicals of the 1950s and 1960s that still rank amongst some of the all-time greats. It was the kind of evening that made me just feel sad for those people who insist that they don’t like musicals for whatever reason, it just feels like they’re missing out on so much joy and fun and in this case, a damn good evening.
Bryn Terfel was sold as the leading man – he is in the midst of a mini-season on the South Bank – but in truth it was a much more balanced company affair, with Julian Ovenden, Clive Rowe, Hannah Waddingham and Emma Williams joining in to share the load. And this is where the evening really shone, with the irrepressible quality of the cast allowed to shine both individually, and together in various combinations as they cherry-picked from some of the best shows – and songs – ever written.
And it was as good as it promised to be and then some. Hannah Waddingham (evidently on day release from Kiss Me, Kate, along with Clive Rowe) continued her quest to prove she is simply one of the best performers we are blessed to have with us. Her ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ sparkled with clarity, wit and that powerhouse vocal; ‘Show Me’ brought out her comic side well; I’m not 100% sure that I need to see or hear her Rita Moreno impression again and any slight mis-step there was more than compensated for with a spine-tingling rendition of ‘Something Wonderful’, sung with perfectly calibrated restraint and demonstrating how versatile a star she is. Her frequent contributions to concerts such as this and other good causes like this and this will be sorely missed when she emigrates to Australia at the end of Kiss Me, Kate.
It makes me eternally sad that we live in a world where Emma Williams isn’t constantly on our stages and she proved her leading-lady credentials here, skipping with a beautiful touch through ‘A Wonderful Guy’ and ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’, radiating charismatic warmth with Clive Rowe on a romp through ‘You’re The Top’, and forming part of the majestic ‘Quintet’ from West Side Story. It was nice to see Clive Rowe being able to show off his sharper comic skills that his recent default dopey character choices have not allowed him to display, ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat’ being his highlight. And Julian Ovenden came close to stealing the show with his laidback and seemingly effortless vocal prowess, investing Maria with a palpable yearning.
My niggles were of the tiniest variety: having opened with the glorious overture from Gypsy, my heart raced at the thought that we might get Waddingham giving us a taster of what will surely be the perfect role for her in the future, and Terfel seemed a little stiff in the first half – his ‘So In Love’ felt more like the declaration of a stalker than anything – his vocal performance too lifeless against the musical theatre wonder around him, but post interval an informality kicked in which was definitely to his credit.
Siân Phillips narrated a brief history of the shows beautifully, Gareth Valentine conducted the Welsh National Opera orchestra with huge energy and a mixed choir added vocal support in some of the bigger numbers. And these act-closing songs were just stunning: ‘You Will Never Walk Alone’, led by Terfel, brought the collective hairs on end, Candide’s ‘Make Your Garden Grow’ was an unexpectedly hugely moving moment and ‘Oklahoma!’ was a glorious, soaring final encore. A wonderfully celebratory evening that filled my heart with joy and the type of occasion that just makes me sad for people who resist the lure of a good musical.