West End Musicals

2019 turned out to be a big year for musicals of every kind. There was a plethora of new offerings from glitzy productions at one and of the scale to small, intimate stagings at the other. The common factor tended to be the original source, which was far more frequently the United States than every other country put together, including the UK.

For this critic, nothing could compare with the superlative Come from Away. When it originally opened on Broadway, the material sounded far from promising. How could you use the celebratory form of the musical to commemorate events on 9/11? Using a fantastic score, a moving true story and loads of heart, the creative team put together a show that deserves to run for years.

Before getting on to the other big stuff, it is worth paying tribute to the remarkable Amélie and its perfectly cast star Audrey Brisson. It was never going to be easy to create a stage version of the French cult movie without disappointing fanatics but the team behind this lovely production did so tastefully at The Other Palace in a fashion that richly deserves a transfer to a major West End house.

Not too far behind was Dear Evan Hansen, another Broadway import with a dark underbelly. In this case, the plot focused on the accidental fame brought on a schoolboy with severe learning and confidence difficulties. His unexpected moment in the limelight and associated popularity resulted from the death of a colleague. Once again, a catchy score accompanying a thought-provoking tale proved to be a winning formula. It also gave stage newcomer Sam Tutty a chance to shine.

The other significant Broadway transfer was Waitress, which somehow added up to considerably more than the sum of its parts. What should be a frothy, lightweight show about very little somehow had enough heart and some great songs from Sara Bareilles to win over British audiences.

Like Waitress, 9 to 5 has enjoyed recent popular success in part because of its strong feminist message. The Dolly Parton musical is likeable if not sensational but did feature a remarkable scene-stealing performance from Bonnie Langford.

Given that Kander and Ebb are one of the most successful musical writing teams in history, it is astonishing that their third C following Cabaret and Chicago had never previously had a major London production, despite a strong run on Broadway as far back as 2007. Curtains may not quite match the pair’s best but it is still an enjoyable comedy detective romp wrapped around a series of well-matched songs.

The Light in the Piazza also started life on Broadway but found its way to the West End via Sheffield. Daniel Evans directed a cast that starred opera diva Renée Fleming in a show that used old-fashioned romantic values to woo audiences at the Royal Festival Hall.

Somehow, Falsettos had never previously enjoyed a West End production until Tara Overfield-Wilkinson brought it to The Other Palace. Time will tell as to whether an angst-ridden, small-scale investigation of a non-nuclear Jewish American family will eventually make it onto a larger West End stage.

On the revival front, a series of old favourites made comebacks with varying degrees of success.

White Christmas hit town just in time for the festive season with a production that had started out at Curve in Leicester. Somehow, although it lacked the razzmatazz of the most expensive shows in town, Nikolai Foster’s production delivered exactly what fans would expect.

Mary Poppins also did what it said on the tin, owing much to a seriously spectacular production directed by Sir Richard Eyre featuring star turns delivered by Zizi Strallen and Charlie Stemp.

It seems impossible to go through a year without the return of something by Rice / Lloyd Webber or the two together. This year, Sheridan Smith took over Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, much the delight of her fan base. Those who could see past the star also had an opportunity to enjoy an impressive debut from Jac Yarrow, who even secured the role of Joseph without appearing on a TV talent show.

Man of La Mancha had not appeared on a London stage in half a century. A revival at the Coliseum was primarily popular as a star vehicle for the unlikely duo of Kelsey Grammer and Nicholas Lyndhurst. However, they were both sung out of the limelight by Australian soprano Danielle de Niese.

The latest incarnation of Sweet Charity at the Donmar Warehouse featured a musically underpowered Anne-Marie Duff in the title role. Allowing for that, it was a likeable evening’s entertainment.