Ray Shell performed Back 2 Black II at the Crazy Coqs, London.
It is weird that Ray Shell – the original Rusty in Starlight Express back in the 1980s and a regular performer in West End musicals over the years in shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Miss Saigon, Children of Eden and, much more recently, The Bodyguard – has taken so long to discover he is a cabaret natural.
In fact, it was only in February at The Pheasantry that this long-time London-based New Yorker made a belated debut in the genre with a show rich in showbiz nostalgia that showed off a voice of pure honey and a warm, funny personality which immediately made his audience feel at home.
Here he was stepping into the breach at the Crazy Coqs, filling in for the ageless but injured star of Grand Hotel and Nine, Liliane Montevecchi, and what a super-sub he turned out to be.
The smaller venue meant there was no room for his three backing singers this time, but the programme was much the same, although with the topical addition of one of the best songs from Miss Saigon, ‘The Movie in my Mind’.
Turning the clock back, he brought on Kim Leeson, one of the Pearls in Starlight Express, to duet ‘Only You’ from that long runner. Shell recalled the trouble they had re-learning the songs in German when the musical was introduced at the end of the 1980s in a purpose-built theatre at Bochum. Twenty six years on and Lloyd Webber’s show is still going strong there!
Shell’s easy charm more or less forced an enthusiastic audience, many of them friends from Starlight days, to join in the catchy ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’ (from Ain’t Misbehavin’) and it was good to hear him doing the sinister ‘My Friends’ again, a reminder of the days when he played a black Sweeney Todd in the Sondheim classic in Holland Park.
Mixing show tunes with the gospel music he was brought up on, Shell also served up a feast of iconic pop songs by Police, Kate Bush (a wonderfully moving ‘The Man With the Child in His Eyes’), Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’, and even a Beatles number ‘The Long and Winding Road’ as one of two encores demanded by an audience who knew a good thing when they saw one.
Apart from duets with one of his singing students and later the elfin Leeson, once a Hot Gossip star, Shell had smart on-stage help from composer Paul Jenkins on keyboards and Ray Barron on piano for this short residency.
No doubt this very special talent, still not as well known as he deserves to be, will be back at the Piccadilly venue for a longer stint – and sooner rather than later.
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