I’ve always had a soft spot for musicals. I think it has something to do with growing up during the 1980s, when ‘Cats’, ‘Les Misérables’, ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Miss Saigon’ graced the West End, performing to sell-out houses every night. To me, a gawky teenager, those shows epitomized glamour.
Now, musicals are the mainstay of West End theatre, beloved by tourists and Londoners alike. Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s and Alain Boublil’s shows remain as popular as ever and have been joined by smash hits including ‘Rent’, ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Stomp’.
It was a shared love of musicals which brought us to the Barbican on this chilly December night, to watch four of the West End’s greatest-ever stars perform together. I was so excited when I saw the line-up: multi-Olivier nominee Linzi Hately, ‘Wicked’ veteran & long-term Brian May collaborator Kerry Ellis and actress & soloist Louise Dearman. Making up the quartet was musical theatre star Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, who just so happens to be heavily pregnant but was remarkably laid-back about being weeks away from giving birth.
“Welcome to this feast of musical theatre, hosted by four great ladies of the West End!” beamed our conductor, Richard Balcombe – and so the evening began. I knew we were in for a good time when our four divas opened the show with a storming version of ‘West Side Story’ classic “America”.
Gliding into a more pensive mode, Victoria H-B sang “As Long as He Needs Me”, with Linzi Hatelely following up with one of my favourite-ever songs from a musical: ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’. “Isn’t Victoria amazing? There’s no way I could have done this when I was pregnant!” Acknowledging, with a wry grin, that she is the oldest out of the four performers, Linzi mused “I’ve been doing musical theatre for 30 years now. I’ve watched these girls come up through the ranks and it’s a privilege to be on the same stage as them.”
At that moment, Louise Dearman appeared and gave us a rousing rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (also a personal fave), before combining with Victoria H-B to sing a second ‘Evita’ classic, “Buenos Aires”. This was followed a heartfelt performance of ‘On My Own’ by Kerry Ellis, which suited her voice perfectly and sent tingles down the spine.
Back came Victoria H-B to dazzle us with a sultry version of ‘Maybe This Time’, before segueing into a duet with Linzi of ‘I Know Him So Well’. The two of them pausing to acknowledge the fantastic job being done by the orchestra (“So often the unsung heroes”), they were joined by Louise and Kerry for an empowering rendition of ‘Hey Big Spender’ – guaranteed to get any audience, especially a Christmassy one, on its feet.
Next, a goosebumps moment “from one of our best British musicals” – Linzi performing ‘Blood Brothers’ “Tell Me It’s Not True”. A true classic – and an audience favourite; who doesn’t love that show? And who doesn’t love ‘Chicago’? Just in time for the interval, all four ladies sang “He Had It Coming”and “All That Jazz”, leaving our appetites nicely whetted for the second half.
“Please welcome back, for a little bit of fun, our ladies!” – and straight into ‘9-5’, Dolly Parton’s mega-hit from the film of the same name. If we weren’t smiling before, we certainly were now. And then, a complete switch in tone, as Linzi sang what, in my humble opinion, is one of the best-ever ballads written: “Send in the Clowns”. By its end, people all around me were wiping away tears.
Another change in tone, with Kerry Ellis re-emerging to belt out “Don’t Rain on My Parade”. “How on earth do you follow that?!” joked Louise Dearman – before managing it with a scintillating version of ‘The Trolley Song’. Take it from me, she very nearly out-Garlanded Garland.
After Kerry and Victoria had duetted on Rent’s “Take Me or Leave Me” came perhaps the best moment of the night: Louise, singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. To call her delivery phenomenal would be to her an injustice – but then, I’m running out of superlatives. It was nearly matched, mind you, by her rendition of “The Winner Takes It All”, which was just glorious.
“You’ve been the most amazing audience”, beamed Kerry Ellis. “Are there any fans of the musical ‘Wicked’ here?” Yes, Kerry, I think it’s fair to say that there were plenty. “Phew. That’s a relief! I played the role of Elphaba both in the West End and on Broadway – as has my dear friend Louise, who I’ve known since I was 15. Sadly, we never got to perform in ‘Wicked’ together – so we’re going to put that right tonight.” Needless to say, they brought the house down.
Our evening, sadly, was about to end – but first, we needed a finale that would close this show in style. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was it – and sent the audience floating out into the night, having just experienced an evening of musical bliss.