Jason Robert Brown in Concert – Royal Festival Hall, London.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
While Jason Robert Brown is somewhat exalted in musical theatre circles, in London productions of his musicals have tended to be small, chamber affairs, with Fringe productions arranging his scores to be played with the smallest number of musicians possible. So it makes a pleasant change to hear his music in the scale of a Royal Festival Hall concert, with Brown backed by a 16-piece orchestra under the supervision of musical director Torquil Munro.
And what a difference that scale makes. It helps that the show opens with the brassy overture to his recent Broadway run of Honeymoon in Vegas, a frenetic, foot-stomping introduction. “That’s not from Parade,” quipped Brown, maybe aware that the up-tempo introduction is somewhat atypical of his work.
Indeed, it’s a quip that was reintroduced at several points throughout the evening, suggesting that Brown’s larger repertoire is far more varied than his best-known musicals may suggest. An Act II preview of a new song, ‘Melinda’, is testament to that. A possible opening number for a new musical set in 1970s New York, Brown combines samba rhythms with rockier overtones to infectious effect, Brown’s voice and exemplary piano skills echoing a Billy Joel-like sound that is perfect for the era.
Elsewhere in the concert, Brown and his orchestra rattled through his back catalogue, highlighting several numbers from each of his musicals. Oliver Tompsett and Matt Henry tackled ‘The River Won’t Flow’ from Songs For a New World with joyous ease, before Cynthia Erivo slayed with ‘Stars and the Moon’, as a woman who marries for money looks back on the happiness she sacrificed. Henry’s return to sing the show’s third number, ‘King of the World’, was a beautifully pared down rendition – just piano, drums, double bass and a beautiful, soulful voice.
After many name checks, a quartet of numbers from Parade saw previous London cast members reprise their roles. Laura Pitt-Pulford (who played Lucille in the 2011 Southwark Playhouse production) performed the best number of Act I with ‘You Don’t Know This Man’, a powerful, controlled, quietly raging performance which could not help but overshadow Bertie Carvel’s subsequent reprise as Leo Frank, the role he played at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007, no matter how impressive it was.
Opening Act II with another of Brown’s short-lived Broadway projects, The Bridges of Madison County, provided a more contemplative sequence, although one in which performers Caroline Sheen, Matt Henry and Sean Palmer struggled to find as much heart as is obvious in some of his other works. But all that was forgotten with a segment dedicated to The Last Five Years. Rooted as it is in the dashed entrails of the composer’s own first marriage, this musical contains some of Brown’s most accessible material, becoming a favourite with musical theatre performers with good reason. Amy Booth-Steel’s ‘I’m Still Hurting’ was full of nuance, pain and heartbreak. It was immediately eclipsed, though, by Erivo’s anthemic rendition of ‘I Can Do Better Than That’.
While the evening had seen many exemplary performances, it is not without justification that Erivo was the only solo performer to receive a standing ovation for her performance. One can only feel for Tompsett, whose own ‘Moving Too Fast’ had the misfortune to follow such a rendition.
Peppered throughout the evening were numbers from Brown’s 13, with performances from the current batch of students from the National Youth Music Theatre, whose 2012 production of the musical gave Brown his West End debut. Led by Amara Okereke and performing choreography by the increasingly ubiquitous Drew McOnie, the young cast showed that there is a new generation of performers that will hold the name of Jason Robert Brown in the same esteem as older generations hold previous exponents of the genre.
And, by the time of the end of his final encore, Brown may well – and deservedly – have converted what few doubters of other generations remained to the genius of one of musical theatre’s greats.
* Readers may also be interested in:
Songs For a New World – Cynthia Erivo and Jenna Russell lead cast at the St James – News
Amy Lennox replaces Laura Tebbutt in The Last Five Years at Lyric Belfast – News
Interview – Jeremy Jordan, star of The Last Five Years movie