Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds – Thursday 16th June – 7:30pm
Last night I was supposed to be sat in a sea of 80,000 Coldplay fans singing along to “Fix You” at Wembley Stadium, but the fates conspired to alter my plans, so instead I happily accepted an invitation to the oldest Regency Theatre in the county (fact) to watch an M.A. Promotions production called Mad About the Musicals, which is celebrating its 10th Anniversary by bringing former Pop Idol runner-up Gareth Gates along for a whistle-stop country-wide sing-song.
Fronted by jubilant show creator, producer and director Michael Courtney (who reminded me of Michael Ball, although another member of my group threw Alan Titchmarsh’s name into lookie-likie contention), MAtM’s concept is a simple one: a celebratory selection box of the very best songs from the musicals of stage and screen, intercut with onstage interplay between the five main singers and banter with the audience.
Having not seen any of the previous nine years’ productions, I can only imagine that a need to spruce things up year-on-year has lead to such a broad and diverse set-list this time around. Whilst I have no qualms with being introduced to some of the more obscure gems of the genre, the sheer number of songs – from Funny Girl, Dreamgirls and Jekyll & Hyde to name but three – which I had not encountered before has lead me to re-evaluate what I thought was my rather knowledgeable acquaintance with the genre. As such, I was beholden to Michael Courtney’s introductions when we reached half-time with only numbers from Miss Saigon and a rousing We Will Rock You medley striking a chord with me.
While the second half – opening with an attention-grabbing selection from The Phantom of the Opera and closing with a five song run-through from everyone’s favourite Les Misérables – provided a more comfortably familiar anthology, what stood out most was how underutilised star name Gareth Gates was. He was the first man on stage at curtains up, but after some jovial repartee with compère Michael (including a self-deprecating jibe about Gareth’s strugglesome stutter) he receded backstage and was by far the least seen of the singers through the night.
Front and centre on the posters to get bums on seats, it was also true that new-to-the-company Gareth – whose primary strength is in pop songs, lest we forget – had the softest/weakest voice of the group, with Michael and the terrific trio of leading ladies each astounding with some assured and belting vocal acrobatics, particularly during duets and complex layered harmonies. Any seriousness during some of the more tender ballads (such as Jesus Christ Superstar) did sometimes feel at odds with the over-rehearsed pantomime-esque (mis-)behaviour between songs, but this was a variety show and that they delivered.
Michael made multiple complementary references to the beauty of the diminutive venue, helping to personalise the banter, but despite the Theatre Royal’s revered history, it must be said that size is not its strength. Despite being on row F, I felt close enough to count the hairs in Gareth’s designer stubble! Indeed, when the colourful lighting rig swathed the audience in light during the more upbeat numbers, my heart went out to the live band and singers who were forced to look out at a solid-but-patchy audience, with the front row in particular looking depressingly threadbare. Wembley Stadium, this was not. Nevertheless, the company behind Mad About the Musicals never let their smiles slip and the show went on with theatrically game gusto.
Photo and poster courtesy of the official Mad About the Musicals Facebook page – I did not take or design these, nor infer ownership. No copyright infringement intended.