The Oliviers in Concert, featuring the BBC Concert Orchestra, at the Royal Festival Hall, London.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
So it’s 40 years since the Olivier Awards were created (they were originally inaugurated in 1976 as the Society of West End Theatre Awards) and kicking off the celebrations was this one-off concert featuring the BBC Concert Orchestra and broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
Staged by award-winning performer, director and now EastEnders cast member, Maria Friedman (alongside co-director Tim Jackson), and hosted by Lesley Manville, this was an entertaining trawl through the back catalogue of shows which have topped the musical theatre categories during the last four decades, performed by a group of first class artists, many of which have their own Olivier statuettes in pride of place at home.
It couldn’t have been easy to balance the programme between audience favourites and less familiar material, but on the whole the choices made appeared well received (although there were bound to be a few surprising omissions – Billy Elliot, Blood Brothers, The Book of Mormon, Cats, Hairspray and Stiles and Drewe’s Honk! (which beat Mamma Mia! and The Lion King in 2000) possibly among them.
For some, the line-up of songs may also have seemed somewhat Sondheim heavy, but as writer and broadcaster David Benedict pointed out in the programme, the great composer and lyricist has been nominated an impressive 21 times.
The Sondheim material provided some of the evening’s highlights too. It was a nice touch to have Friedman sing ‘Move On’ with Daniel Evans – the actors appeared respectively in the 1991 and 2007 award-winning productions of Sunday in the Park With George – and it is always a gift to hear Evans return to the role of George Seurat (‘Finishing the Hat’). Perhaps an odd choice of song to include, but one I welcomed.
It was also rather touching to see and hear the slightly under-used but splendid Guildford School of Acting choir come together for ‘Our Time’ from Merrily We Roll Along (perhaps there are future Olivier winners amongst them).
And while the crowd gave Elaine Paige’s much-anticipated rendition of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ (Evita) a rapturous reception, it was Friedman’s deeply emotional and powerful interpretation of ‘Losing My Mind’ (Follies) that won the best female vocal prize of the evening for me.
Elsewhere, some of the uptempo numbers could have been staged or choreographed with a little more originality (particularly during ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’ from Guys and Dolls, despite the ever likeable Clive Rowe’s fine vocal). When performers were given the freedom to be playful – Katie Brayben and John Dagleish during ‘Me and My Girl’ or Friedman and Evans in ‘You’re the Top’ – the evening had a new energy about it.
Some problems with sound balance, particularly troubling during Act I, left vocals drowned out by the power of the orchestra (the Jersey Boys section being one such example), but there was no trouble hearing the dulcet tones of the ever popular Olivier Award winner Michael Ball. In addition to a rousing version of ‘All I Ask of You’ (The Phantom of the Opera) with Scarlett Strallen, there was an opportunity to hear the actor sing material from shows he had starred in, but from different characters’ perspectives. Hence, Javert’s ’Stars’ from Les Misérables and an enchanting new arrangement of ‘Not While I’m Around’ (sung by Tobias in Sweeney Todd).
Credit also to the fine musicians who make up the hardworking BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Keith Lockhart. Their talents were showcased in two overtures: from Candide and Oklahoma!
All in all a pleasant enough journey of song which demonstrated the diversity of musical theatre recognised by the Oliviers during the last 40 years, and in the process showcased some top notch talent. An appropriate opening to this year’s celebrations.
The 40th Olivier Awards will take place on Sunday 3 April at the Royal Opera House.