West End Heroes 2014 was performed at the Dominion Theatre, London.
Following the phenomenal success of West End Heroes last year, Dominion Theatre general manager David Pearson pulled out all the stops again to raise money for Help For Heroes who work to rehabilitate servicemen, women and their families who have suffered life-changing injuries in combat. Pearson is ex-Royal Air Force and this is clearly a labour of love for him. What an immense privilege to experience such a wonderful atmosphere as leading West End artists joined brilliant musicians from the Armed Forces on a West End stage.
It made me appreciate once again how music and theatre really do have a massive role to play in keeping spirits up through immensely dark times. In Act II the company of Songs For Victory (an authentic musical stage show celebrating the songs of the 1930s and 40s) took us back to the Second World War with an optimistic ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ followed by a sentimental ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’, “because that meant there was hope”.
The show opened with a spine-tingling fanfare from eight of The Band of the Queen’s Division, resplendent in red and bearskins, playing from the Dress Circle box. Then onstage The Central Band of the Royal Air Force and The Royal Air Force Squadronaires played a rich and mellow ‘National Anthem’, followed by a sparkling ‘Military Medley’ including ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’ and some impressive drumming and choreography from The Band of HM Royal Marines Portsmouth ‘The Royal Band’. Musical excellence and pizzazz from our Armed Forces indeed and evident throughout the show.
Michael Ball took the roof off with his entrance and the West End arrived. Clearly a hit with the audience before he had even uttered a word, Ball was a tremendous host; fun, personable and charismatic throughout the evening. He also offered a few stories from his last 30 years in showbusiness, playfully commentating on his ‘advanced years’ as he introduced young performers who weren’t even born when he first trod the boards. Current West End Eponine Carrie Hope Fletcher, who sang ‘On My Own’ from Les Misérables, played Ball’s daughter in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang 12 years ago.
The cast of Evita, which recently opened for a limited run at the newly refurbished Dominion, kicked things off with an energetic ‘Buenos Aires’ led by Michelle Pentecost as Eva Peron (she is alternate to Madalena Alberto). The pace then slowed down with a beautiful arrangement of Ivor Novello’s ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring’. Sung by the newly formed West End Heroes Choir, these 44 singers made up of support staff in London theatres (front of house, box office, stage crew and dressers), under the direction of Stuart Morley, looked great and sang impressively throughout the evening.
Louise Dearman filled the theatre with an emotional rendition of ‘Back to Before’ from Ragtime, while Wendi Peters provided a contrast with silver-sequinned, brassy retired song-and-dance gal Martha the Megaphone’s take on ‘Let Me Sing’ from White Christmas. Irving Berlin’s show will follow Evita at the Dominion in November. It was announced that Aled Jones – also in the cast of White Christmas – was unable to sing, but any disappointment was abated as Flight Lieutenant Matthew Little sang the show’s title song, backed by the West End Heroes Choir, with the entire auditorium singing by the end. Little apparently began as a trombonist before singing and looked and sounded completely at ease amongst West End performers.
Britain’s Got Talent winners Collabro singing lush harmonies in ‘Bring Him Home’ proved that all five of these boys can truly sing. I would have preferred less backing and more vocals, but there is no doubting their musicality and vocal prowess.
Marti Pellow’s version of ‘I Won’t Send Roses’ from Mack and Mabel proved popular, while Louise Plowright performed ‘Things You Just Know’ from the new musical adaptation of Sleepless in Seattle, possibly heading for London in 2015. There was also a Beatles tribute including ‘Yesterday’ from James Fox and Woman the Band (Mazz Murray, Gina Murray, Emma Kershaw) singing ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.
The penultimate number of Act I introduced us to the spectacular choreography of Matt Flint and The West End Heroes Dancers joined by the choir and Military Drummers and Riflemen in a musical theatre song trio: Tiffany Graves and Matthew Little warmly competed in ‘Anything You Can Do’ with Graves absolutely nailing the competition to reach the highest note; terrific tap dancing in ‘Slap That Bass’ from Shall We Dance; Oliver Tompsett offered a swinging ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’; finishing with The Queen’s Colour Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment’s firing gun salute and fireworks – spectacular!
The only person who could hope to follow this was Michael Ball whose warm voice filled the Dominion with a powerful, heart-felt ‘Anthem’ from Chess. He didn’t need a choir, but the stage filled behind him with military musicians and singers which made for a tremendously uplifting finish to Act I.
There were two stunning highlights in Act II, first in a Mary Poppins medley with sparkling playing and fantastic choreography again from Matt Flint, culminating in an exceptional ‘Step in Time’ with Freddie Huddleston tap dancing around the pros arch – even though you knew he had a harness it was still magic.
Then the male cast of Miss Saigon started a cappella, capturing all attention with their astonishing vocal harmonies, before Hugh Maynard sang an awe-inspiring heart-felt ‘Bui Doi’ that cut to the soul as photos of Vietnamese children of war were projected onto a screen above. A reminder of the suffering of not only soldiers but children in war. Daniel Boys and Lauren Samuels then touched the heartstrings with an engaging rendition of Michael Bublé’s ‘Home’ with beautiful guitar accompaniment from Alan Darby.
Finally Michael Ball took centrestage again, singing ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’ and ‘Love Changes Everything’, acknowledging the sacrifice and devotion of members of our military and their families, followed by Flight Lt Matthew Little with the atmospheric ‘Sunset’, accompanied by the Band of the Queen’s Division drummers, before the entire West End Heroes company finished with ‘Do You Hear The People Sing?’ A simply tremendous and meaningful evening.
You can still donate £5 to Help for Heroes by texting WESTEND to 70900.