Ray Shell performs Back to Black at The Pheasantry, London, until 22 February.
From traditional gospel music to West End musicals in which he has starred. through a reading from his first novel Iced, to Kate Bush and Amy Whitehouse pop classics, and right up to date with a terrific song from the Cyndi Lauper Tony Award-winning show Kinky Boots, veteran New Yorker Ray Shell had his audience in awe of his versatility in a stunning London cabaret debut.
Almost a Londoner by now after first appearing in the UK back in 1978 in the unfortunately-named Little Willie Jr’s Resurrection, ‘the Soul Man of the West End’ has never stopped working, whether it be acting, singing, storytelling, writing – he’s published a biography of American bandleader Spike Jones as well as novels – or directing, but just don’t ask him to dance! He recalled going for an audition for Cats when unable to convince choregrapher Gillian Lynne he was the right man for the job as there was “no part for a crippled cat”.
One of those faces you know but often can’t put a name to, Shell created the roles of Rusty in Starlight Express in 1984 and Normax in Five Guys Named Moe, sang the title role in Sweeney Todd at Holland Park’s fringe theatre – reminding us of that with a dark and disturbing version of ‘My Friends’ from Sondheim’s masterpiece –or appearing more recently as the star’s manager Bill Devaney in The Bodyguard.
His vocal range is astonishing, going from the sombre bass of Sweeney to the light, almost falsetto, of songs from other shows such as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. Other shows he appeared in were Ain’t Misbehavin’ (he had the audience joining in with the chorus of ‘Feet’s Too Big’), The Lion King, Gone With the Wind and Children of Eden – a co-star, Anthony Barclay, the son of Danny Williams of ‘Moon River’ fame, made a guest appearance to sing the 1948 Nat King Cole hit ‘Nature Boy’.
Also doing a guest spot, Chardel Rhoden sang two songs from White Folks, another project Shell is in involved in with composer Paul Jenkins and director Dollie Henry, in an evening of infinite variety, and it was a shame that more people were not at the King’s Road nightspot to enjoy all the effort that had gone into it.
Calling it “a work in progress which we’ll get right by Saturday night”, Shell admittedly was unsure of his running order at times, but there was a valid excuse as the show had to be put together in a bit of a panic after regular MD Iain Vince-Gatt was taken ill.
This was far from being a one-man show as Shell was not only supported by Barclay and Rhoden, but also by backing singers Milton Brown and Debra Lewis, as well as Jenkins as stand-in MD on keyboards, Sam Rommer on bass and Ollie Stokes on piano.
A very different sort of show from the cabaret norm, but one that charmed from the outset because of Shell’s easy rapport with the diners allied to the impressively diverse talents of a true all-round entertainer.