It takes a big presence to host a concert at the London Palladium, one of the West End’s larger auditoriums, and make it feel like an intimate cabaret gig. Kerry Ellis uses the combination of a phenomenally powerful voice and self-effacing humility to do just that.
The opening medley of James Bond songs works well for Ellis as she effortlessly segues between ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and ‘Skyfall’ – a feat helped by the songs being so musically similar – before revelling in the light and shade of ‘Live and Let Die’. McCartney’s contribution to the Bond oeuvre allows for many shifts between contemplative ballad and all-out rock, a great combination for any singer and utilised to its full here.
Truth be told, elsewhere there’s a similarity of tone that, while showing off Ellis’ rock vocals to full effect, doesn’t always provide the best variety of pace. Traditionally slow numbers are sped up a bit, and songs that are usually performed in an uptempo manner receive a more laidback delivery. It’s a chance to hear some well-known numbers in interesting new arrangements – a classy rendition of My Fair Lady’s ‘On the Street Where You Live’ being a particular case in point. Less successful is a curious rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Losing My Mind’, with the plaintive torch song losing the tortured emotion that it requires.
It’s only really when Ellis harks back to her time in Oliver! that we start to get a change of pace. Adopting the usual exaggerated Cockney accent, ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ is probably the closest the evening gets to a ‘traditional’ musical performance – not that contemporary musical theatre is in any way ignored. Given Ellis’ track history, it is no surprise to hear numbers from Wicked (a beautiful rendition of ‘I’m Not That Girl’) or even a suite of songs from Lloyd Webber’s ‘Tell Me On a Sunday’ – a shameless plea from Ellis to perform the whole piece, with which the whole audience would seem to agree. And a rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ finds new points of tenderness in phrases that are so easy to play with fury and righteous anger.
Even before he joins her on stage, Brian May is a constant presence throughout the evening. Ellis’ association with the Queen guitarist is clearly a meeting of minds and of musical tastes – and her vocals work better with his guitar playing than any male vocalist has managed since the passing of Freddie Mercury. Whether performing an acoustic rendition of ‘The Way We Were’, or rocking out to ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, the affection and mutual respect the pair show for each other is infectious.
A Michael Jackson medley – held together by a beautiful interpretation of ‘Man in the Mirror’, enhanced by the 60-strong Arts Educational School choir – leads into a couple of encore numbers, reaching a climax with what else but ‘Defying Gravity’. On her own, it would have been the perfect way to close the show. Being joined by fellow Wicked alumni Alexia Khadime, Rachel Tucker and Louise Dearman made it a stunning finale to a packed, sublimely enjoyable evening.