Review: Musicals Unsung (St James Theatre Studio)

MusicalsUnsung-ParallelProductionsSheSeesStars: ★★★★☆

Having seen a couple of editions of West End Switched Off, which showcases well-known songs from musicals presented in a different light, I was keen to pop back to the St James Theatre’s Studio space to see another show put together by musical director Kris Rawlinson: Musicals Unsung. The concept of this show is a sort of flip-side to Switched Off, giving an airing to songs that have been cut from popular musicals. This appealed to me because I like to know what goes on behind the scenes, and get an insight into how the writing process leads to the final result.

In addition to Kris Rawlinson on keys, Natalie Hancock on cello and Rhiannon Jeffreys on reeds (flute, clarinet and sax), the cast for the evening included Stewart Clarke, Lucie Jones, Sally Samad, Jeremy Legat and Katie Paine. They each took it in turns to sing songs and introduce the next performer, a simple format that gave a nice relaxed feel to the night, dispensing with the need for a compere. In many cases some background was given to why the song had been cut, where it had fitted in the show, and in some cases which song had replaced it. All very interesting!

I won’t walk through all of the evening’s songs, but they came from big hits such as Wicked, The Wizard of Oz and Shrek, through Disney favourites The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Mulan, to slightly more cult offerings such as Little Shop of Horrors and Spring Awakening. Very often it was obvious from the style of the song which musical it was penned for; sometimes it was also evident why the song had been cut, but in many cases the song still stood up to scrutiny, at least in a concert context.

Whilst I enjoyed the whole evening, there were a few particular highlights from my point of view…

Musicals-Unsung-LucieJones-StJTweb
source: stjamestheatre.co.uk

The first was Lucie Jones in general. Not only does she have a beautiful voice, her off-the-cuff comments in between songs repeatedly had the audience laughing. What an engaging performer she is! I actually remember her from The X Factor several years ago (her performance of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine sticks in my head for some reason), but frankly I think her talents would be a bit wasted on pop – she belongs on a (big) stage. I hope to be able to catch her in a show before too long.

She treated us to Making Good from Wicked, which was originally Elphaba’s first big number in the show; the section ‘Unlimited… my future is unlimited’ still survives in the show in the middle of its replacement The Wizard and I. Lucie also had the good fortune to be given the rather beautiful Come Down From The Tree from Once on This Island, the preposterous plot of which (girls turns into a tree etc.) she took a certain amount of amusement in explaining to the audience. Come Down From The Tree is sung by the girl’s mother, imploring her to come back down to earth and learn to love again: ‘But down below is where you must be / and what you were meant to do / so hold out your hand / and listen to someone who / was once in a tree / like you…’ I’m not familar with the show, but if the rest of it is that lovely, I’ll have to check it out.

Musicals-Unsung-SallySamad-StJTweb
source: stjamestheatre.co.uk

Sally Samad also put in a couple of show-stealing performances. Though I’ve only ever seen her in concert-style shows at the St James Studio, she’s clearly brilliant at characterisation, making her another one I hope to see in a full show sometime. She really brought out the humour in the delightfully malicious lyrics of  All Good Things Must End, written for the sea witch Ursula to taunt Ariel in The Little Mermaid. How could you not love the lines ‘Puppies die and teeth decay / And lollipops are licked away’, ‘Beauty queens get old and fat / And wrinkle up, and that is that’ or ‘Parties dwindle down ‘Til you’re / unconscious on the bathroom floor’ (we’ve all been there or thereabouts, right)?

Sally gave another great character turn in a duet with Jeremy Legat, I Remember Love, which was cut from The Drowsy Chaperone to be replaced by Love is Always Lovely in the End. Complete with hat, wig and glasses, she really brought ageing hostess Mrs. Tottendale to life: ‘I remember oink / I remember moo / I remember petting something furry at the zoo / And I remember love / At least I think I do’. OK, the lyrics aren’t exactly complex or award-winning, but in Sally’s hands they were extremely funny.

Musicals-Unsung-StewartClarke-StJTweb
source: stjamestheatre.co.uk

Stewart Clarke did a sterling job with a couple of male lead songs. The first, I Could Be In Love With Someone Like You, cut from The Last Five Years, opened the show with a great dose of energy. The story here was that Theresa O’Neill, estranged wife of the show’s writer Jason Robert Brown, threatened to sue on the grounds that the lyrics were too close a representation of their relationship. Not fancying legal action, Brown replaced the song. Which Way Is The Party?, cut from Wicked after its San Francisco tryouts in favour of Dancing Through Life, was another example of chunks of a song surviving into its successor – apparently Stephen Schwartz felt the replacement was a clearer statement of Fiyero’s life philosophy, as well as better suiting the actor playing Fiyero (Norbert Leo Butz) in musical style and lyrical content.

Although many of the songs could have happily remained in their respective shows, there were some that were more obvious candidates to be shelved. I Found A Hobby from Little Shop of Horrors (sung by Jeremy Legat) was deemed too close to the bone to remain in the show – I’ll let you look up the lyrics for yourself! There Once Was A Pirate from Spring Awakening was replaced with the stronger and less obtuse The Guilty Ones as the opening of Act II. And The Jitterbug, removed from The Wizard of Oz, was frankly just a bit odd – and the ‘jitterbug / bug-a-bug bug-a-bug bug-a-boo’ lyric might be OK on paper, but could be considered ill-advised in a family show once you hear it sung aloud…

This was a really entertaining evening, and a great show for musical theatre nerds who like to discover hidden gems. I imagine there must be a huge treasure trove of forgotten songs out there for Kris Rawlinson and friends to mine, so here’s hoping that  Musicals Unsung can become a semi-regular feature at the St James Theatre Studio.

 

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