Sunday, 6 July 2014

West End Live 2014

I've been seeing and hearing things about West End Live for years now, so when my equally musical-loving friend suggested going I was keen to see what it was all about. West End Live is now into its 10th year, moving from its original location of Leicester Square to the grander venue of Trafalgar Square in 2011. The free event spans across the whole weekend and encourages performances from the majority of the best musicals that the West End has to offer.

Although we preferred the line-up for Saturday, other commitments meant we could only make the Sunday performances, so we headed up on the train in the morning armed with necessary quantities of water and sun cream. We arrived around half an hour early and it was fairly busy by this point so we made our way to about halfway towards the front. It was near impossible to see the stage from this standing area, but if you got there early enough a position on the steps would give you a perfect view of the stage. Luckily for the rest of us there were two large screens either side of the stage that gave you an insight into the action.

This year the event was compered by Oliver Tompsett, West End star of Wicked and We Will Rock You, and professional presenter Lisa Vickery. The compering wasn’t particularly professional and the majority of their jokes fell flat, as is often the case with events of this kind. There was a third compere, on ‘Katie-Cam’ who attempted to keep the audience amused between performances by interacting with the other attractions dotted around Trafalgar Square, but these interludes became very tedious, particularly in the oppressive midday sun.

The first show to take to the stage was Stomp, a musical in which the music is created by performers crashing around the stage with bin lids, brooms and other everyday objects. Although the complexity of the choreography and rhythms they are creating is beyond impressive, I couldn’t help but wonder how you could sit through two and a half hours of it in a show and not get a little bored. The 10 minute set they gave us was enough for me.

When The Lion King was introduced you could sense the crowd's anticipation for a glimpse into the spectacle of the stunning costumes, innovative choreography and uplifting vocals infused with African chants. From the moment the two performers entered the stage to a pre-recorded track with karaoke-standard instrumentation and backing vocals, it was clear that the performance was going to be a big disappointment. In spite of the lack of costume and terrible quality of accompanying music, I was prepared still to judge the performance on the vocals that followed, but unfortunately this didn’t do much to boost the standards. The duo that sang ‘Can You Feel the Love’ sang the majority of the song out of time as if they were making a half-hearted and self-conscious effort at an office karaoke party filled with colleagues who they would have to face the next day. The tempo picked up when the female leads swapped over for ‘He Lives in You’ but any actual singing was limited to the odd riff or chant over the top of the pre-recorded track. What a disappointing, and quite frankly embarrassing, performance from what is supposedly one of London’s top shows. If they think such an event is beneath them, perhaps they should just not take part next time.

I knew nothing of The Commitments prior to attending West End Live but it was one of few shows whose performance convinced me that it may be worth seeing in full. The cast launched off their set with the enthusiasm that was needed to give the audience an energy boost following on from The Lion King’s flat performance. Of course it probably helped that the show’s music is made up of classic songs from the 60s and 70s and so the whole audience could sing and dance along. The cast consisted of a front man with a great soulful voice complemented by a husky edge, a live band and three female backing singers. The highlight for me was when the trio of girls took to centre stage for a harmony-packed rendition of ‘River Deep Mountain High’.

Having already seen Matilda I was intrigued to see which one of their energetically complex numbers they would transfer to the empty stage. Although simply electing for one young girl and a building block for a rendition of ‘Naughty’ felt like a bit of a copout, I appreciate that choosing an ensemble number would have been a logistical nightmare due to the show’s heavy reliance on the ingenious layout of the set to add layers of meaning to each scene. However, the young actress playing Matilda took it on herself to successfully wow the crowd with her undeniable talent, complete fearlessness and unrivalled enthusiasm.

Up next was The Pajama Game – a show of which I was keen to have a taster before deciding whether or not to buy tickets. From looking at videos that audience members have uploaded onto YouTube, it seems that a big ensemble number was performed on the Saturday of West End Live, and the Sunday slot was just left to Dan Burton to sing ‘Hey There’. After a couple of smooth verses of solo, Burton’s vocals were played back to him through the speakers and he launched into a duet with himself. With the missing element of context the performance was a little confusing and lacked the comedic element it seemed to be pointing towards.

I didn’t know much about Thriller Live, besides from the fact that it is based on both the music and life of Michael Jackson. This set, however, was potentially the most enjoyable and impressive of the day, which largely came down to the effort put in by the cast and the creative decision to showcase so many of the various styles of music and dance that are incorporated into the show. The performance began with two Jackson 5 numbers, where serious credit is due for the young boy who took on Michael Jackson’s role and hit every note without fail. Although the standard of vocals was equally high for the remainder of songs, it was the commitment and energy of the dancers that put this performance above all others, as they really appeared to push their body to every limit.

This was a tough act to follow, but fortunately another young talent from Billy Elliot stepped up the game once more with a perfect rendition of ‘Electricity’. However many times you watch a boy of his age successfully execute the dance that follows, it never ceases to astound and render your own accomplishments seem feeble in comparison. It was only a shame that from my restricted view point I had to watch the majority of the number via the screens.

By this point the heat, thirst and hunger were getting to us so we stayed for two further acts: Carousel and Jersey Boys. Like any musical theatre nerd I love a bit of Rodgers & Hammerstein, but the couple of numbers in this case seemed a little out of place, which wasn’t helped by the shrill and piercing quality that the speakers seemed to add to the higher range of vocals. As a whole performance, the cast failed to connect with the audience and I have to admit I was a little bored, though perhaps this was partly down to the heat.

Jersey Boys, on the other hand, got the crowd going again, but they did have the advantage of upbeat and well-known material. Whilst the tight harmonies and lofty ranges of the performers are highly credible, I always wonder if it gets a little less impressive after a couple of hours of the fairly repetitive songs, in a similar way to Stomp.

At this point it was time to head to a cocktail bar and discuss what we though of the day’s performances. West End Live is definitely worth a visit in the sense that you get to watch snipets of some of the best shows in London for free, but I think next year we’ll be more inclined to go on the Saturday. It’s still somewhat surprising though, that a couple of the West End’s biggest shows failed to meet the standards of the smaller productions and missed out on a huge marketing opportunity.


1 comment

  1. I am so jealous, I really want to go to the west end, was it fab or was it fab? I have nominated you for the Liebster Award, check out the link to my post to find out about it and I hope you have fun completing it! XO


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