Sam Bailey in Concert was presented at the Lyric Theatre, London.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
For a pop supremo who claims to dislike musical theatre, Simon Cowell heads a media empire that has propelled an increasingly large number of performers towards the genre. The very first series of The X Factor featured both Cassie Compton and Brenda Edwards, two women who are now firm favourites with West End audiences. The talent show alumni who have transferred (or indeed returned) to musical theatre has hardly abated since, culminating with Britain’s Got Talent crowning a musical theatre-inspired boyband, Collabro, as champions in 2014.
The latest performer indicating a willingness to explore a life in musicals is Sam Bailey, who won The X Factor in 2013. Her concert at the West End’s Lyric Theatre could be seen as a full-scale public audition. But is having a tremendous belt and a passion for the genre’s big mega-musicals enough?
Certainly there is no denying the power and emotion at the core of Bailey’s every performance. When she is able to connect with a song and blast her tremendous voice out to its highest effect, such as in Wicked’s ‘The Wizard and I’ or ‘Run to You’ from The Bodyguard (performed in a beautiful duet with fellow X Factor graduate Jaymi Hensley of pop band Union J) she can deservedly hold the attention of an entire theatre.
Just as impressive is her warm, self-effacing personality. Between songs, her ease at being herself on stage translates into a genuine likability in ways that many more seasoned West End performers struggle with while performing cabaret. It also helps gloss over some of her less successful musical numbers. After struggling gamely through a rendition of Sondheim’s ‘Invocation and Instructions to the Audience’, a fake phone call from Cowell takes plenty of digs both at his personal expense and the reputation of his own short-lived West End venture, I Can’t Sing!, to the delight of an audience who need little encouragement to show their appreciation.
Duetting with established West End musical performers can be a risky move for someone new to the genre, and so at times it proves here. While Bailey works well alongside such stalwarts as Michael Xavier (with Miss Saigon’s ‘Last Night of the World’) and Caroline Sheen (‘Gimme Gimme’ from Thoroughly Modern Millie, the performance of the evening) she also very much comes across as the junior partner in such duets. And yet among the Boys of the Barricade – a group of former Les Misérables men with many years of experience between them – she shows she is more than up to the challenge.
Still, at times the raspy throatiness that gives Bailey’s belt such character can work against her in quieter moments. Accompanied by Collabro when singing Scott Alan’s ‘Anything Worth Holding On To’ (the second of two songs performed in collaboration with the New York-based composer) it is perhaps best that the number’s quiet, more contemplative verses are taken by the boys, leaving Bailey to take the lead at the point where her vocal strength works best for the song.
If this is a true audition for the West End, one can imagine that a casting director might have suggested a selection of numbers more closely suited to roles for which she is suitable – her rendition of ’As Long as He Needs Me’ from Oliver! suggests she could make a fine Nancy, while her rendition of Sunset Boulevard’s ‘With One Look’ implies that she may not be ready for that particular close-up. One might also suggest a little more attention to the lyric, as a number of verbal fluffs (most noticeably in the show’s climactic and joyous rendition of ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’ from Hairspray) are noticeable throughout.
But clearly Bailey is at ease on stage, and has both the drive to succeed and the fanbase to pay to watch her. Whether or not she goes on to a theatrical role in the future, she has at the very least proved that she can (along with director Katie Pesskin and MD Michael Riley) put together a fine evening’s worth of entertainment.
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Interview – Sam Bailey – a passion for musical theatre leads to dream West End concert