Wednesday 27 May 2015

Jason Robert Brown - Live In Concert - Review

Royal Festival Hall, London


Jason Robert Brown

Returning to a London concert for one night only, New York composer Jason Robert Brown plus West End guests, performed to an adoring Royal Festival Hall. Opening the gig with the overture from Honeymoon in Vegas, his latest to show to open (and after 3 months, close) on Broadway, there was an air of refreshing even if disarmingly honesty self-deprecation as Brown told his audience that the show was "the latest in a long series of shows you're not going to see over here!”

Musical director Torquil Munro had assembled an impressive orchestra for the evening, though given the venue’s vast expanse, a little more attention needed to have been paid to the sound-mix that occasionally went awry.  In what was to prove an event of two quite distinct halves, the evening’s first section was, for the most part, little more than a simply entertaining line-up. It was post-interval however that Brown’s selection of both singer and song became jewel-encrusted. 

Memorable from act one was wunderkind Eleanor Worthington-Cox’s What It Means To Be A Friend from Brown's paean to teenage angst, 13, whilst Bertie Carvel offered a touching reprise of his Leo Frank from the Donmar Warehouse's 2007 production of Parade of 2007. The highlight of the half however was Laura Pitt-Pulford (who merited a second half re-appearance) re-visiting her Lucille Frank, also from Parade only this time the Southwark Playhouse’s 2011 production. Pitt-Pulford's You Don't Know This Man offered a performance of beautifully measured power alongside quite possibly the best example of acting-through-song of the night.

Act two kicked off with a medley from The Bridges of Madison County, another of Brown's briefly lived Broadway shows - and whilst Caroline Sheen was exquisite as Italian immigrant Francesca, singing opposite both Matt Henry and Sean Palmer, too often the numbers suggested a Gaelic rather than Latin pulse, or maybe that was down to the hall's acoustics too. It took a one-off composition from Brown, Melinda, drawn from a fusion of the music of 1970's New York for the second half to truly ignite. Beautifully channelling a Billy Joel inspired sound, Melinda offered a rare moment to witness Brown's dazzling keyboard skills.

Amy Booth-Steel got the evening’s  The Last Five Years chapter underway with a beautifully nuanced I'm Still Hurting, though it was to be Cynthia Erivo's I Can Do Better Than That that saw this “national treasure in waiting” of musical theatre Festival Hall’s roof clean off!. It was tough on Oliver Tompsett who had to follow Erivo with a thoroughly decent (but by now, completely overshadowed) Moving Too Fast. In a number that was to see her powerfully duet with Brown, Willemijn Verkaik was on fine form with And I Will Follow. 

Whilst Brown's melodies are consistently ingenious, his lyrics vary. The caustic irony he imbued in The Last Five Years and in Parade was a mark of genius that matches Sondheim’s best for its pinpoint, minimalist dissection of the human condition, yet the evening's snatches of The Bridges Of Madison County seemed to lack the perceptive wit of his earlier years.  

Amara Okereke led a Drew McOnie choreographed Brand New You routine from 13, complete with a nearly drilled adolescent NYMT ensemble reprising their West End premiere from some years back, before Brown took the microphone again to encore with a passionate Someone To Fall Back On.

Seeming genuinely taken aback at the blazing warmth of his reception, Brown commented to the crowd who stood as one to salute him, that he "doesn’t see that every day!” Much like fellow American Scott Alan who himself only recently played London, one senses that both New Yorkers feel more appreciated on this side of the pond than back home.

Jason Robert Brown should return here soon, to a more intimate venue and for a (better rehearsed) residency of modest length. His talent as writer, pianist and heavenly-voiced singer too is unquestioned and what is more, London loves him.

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