On entering Door One at the Royal Albert Hall and seeing top hats, tails and tap shoes clustered in a doorway, it was time to prepare for an evening of ‘The Broadway Sound’. Given the stature of the internationally renowned John Wilson and his handpicked orchestra, they were undoubtedly going to impress in a live performance – and sure enough, an opening of sweeping strings intermittently punctuated with punchy brass chords blew the audience across the Atlantic to the Broadway stage in Gershwin’s Overture to Funny Face, which opened the concert.
Going back in time to what was known as the ‘Golden Age’ of musicals, the sound of the orchestra was rich and wholesome, based very much on the grandiose sound of the Romantic era, but jazzed up. The John Wilson Orchestra recreated this sound faithfully, with an air of authenticity, and it is safe to say that all of the orchestral numbers were truly magnificent. The highlights were a sultry ‘Imaginary Coney Island’ from Bernstein’s On the Town and ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ from Rodgers’ On Your Toes.
The Prom programme for the evening was light-hearted in nature whilst still managing to combine different moods, from the lusty Balcony Scene from Bernstein’s West Side Story, to a comedic ‘Seven and a Half Cents’ from Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ The Pajama Game. Four soloists from the Maida Vale Singers sang this latter piece in bowler hats, complete with choreography and amusing facial expressions. The sung pieces had a very different feel to the purely orchestral works, providing a stark contrast between them. The use of individual microphones for the soloists detracted somewhat from the sound of the John Wilson Orchestra and created a crisp overtone that was sometimes a little too shrill in contrast to the Maida Vale singers. That said, Seth MacFarlane gave an outstanding performance with punctual diction in ‘Ya Got Trouble’ from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. Considering the pace of the song, he tackled it with ease and the speakers crooned with his soft voice, which could easily be compared to that of Frank Sinatra. He boasts an impressive career as a voice-over artist, which made his performance with a microphone stand out. It would have been great to hear the natural projection of the other singers such as Rodney Earl Clarke as he clearly had a powerful voice in his performance of ‘Ol’ Man River’ from Kern’s musical Show Boat.
West End performer Anna-Jane Casey matched the brass section in an energetic rendition of Jule Styne’s ‘Don’t Rain on my Parade’ from the musical Funny Girl. It was a performance that Barbra Streisand would have been proud of. Casey’s voice was bold and her personality shined through in the sassy lyrics. The brass outdid themselves and got to show-off their ‘big band’ style playing in this piece. It was an attention-grabbing statement that could have happily closed the show but was overthrown by the cherry on the cake – the encore. The steps either side of the stage had been illuminated with flashing coloured lights throughout the performance, paying homage to the Broadway stage, but the encore went all out in true Broadway fashion. Not only did fourteen tap dancers ascend on the stage high-kicking, but the archways in the roof also flashed in a ripple of coloured lights. Anna-Jane Casey strutted on stage in tap shoes and a superbly sparkly number to sing and dance for Herman’s ‘Tap Your Troubles Away’ from the musical Mack and Mabel. This final piece captured the true essence of the Golden Age of Broadway theatre – lights, dance and music to thrill.
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