Jukebox musicals have become increasingly popular in theatres around the country, presented in a variety of guises. Some construct a biographical narrative (Buddy), others a story (Mama Mia), some eschew all peripheral options and go for a straight concert style performance (like Let it Be), the route chosen by the Back to Bacharach company for their presentation of the Burt Bacharach songbook.
Born in 1928, Bacharach has written over 70 top 40 hits in America, over 50 in the UK, 5 of them No1’s, all of which enjoyed worldwide chart success. The majority of his songs were written with Hal David. Their trademark sound comprises mellifluous melody, intricate arrangement, intelligent lyrics, a full band including brass and piano, and instantly accessible and memorable songs. So the musical raw materials for a successful show are undoubtedly present, the question was whether they could be performed in a way that did justice to their heritage.
Wisely, the production values are in the musicians and vocalists. The stage set is concert style, a backdrop projector provides period images of both music and place, the lighting effective but unobtrusive. A big advantage in presenting this show is that the majority of the songs have been successfully covered by several artists obviating the need for any physical or costume impersonation. The musicians are dressed in black and white, the vocalists suitably attired for a night out. As much effort has been put into appearance as for the music.
Lead vocalist and MC for the evening was Martin Neeley, a seasoned West End performer with, amongst others, Les Miserables to his credits. That experience showed, as he skilfully eased the evening along with his charm and patter, sharing with us that Lichfield was the birthplace of his mother, so this was a “back to his roots” show. An assured and versatile singer and performer, his high point of the evening was “24 hours from Tulsa”, vocally powerful, he told the story in a way that Gene Pitney would have admired. We felt your dilemma Martin!
For the women, Rietta Austin anchored proceedings. Her professionalism oozed from every note and move. She smiled, she emoted, she made us feel that she didn’t want to be anywhere else but singing that song with us in that moment. Her astonishing four octave range was on show with her tour de force, “Anyone Who Had A Heart” which deservedly drew the warmest applause of the evening.
Melone M’Kenzy largely took “Dionne Warwick” duties, her statuesque beauty and long evening gown making her an imposing figure. Her enthusiasm was palpable, and best deployed during the terrific “ I Say A Little Prayer For You” which she sang, and led, impeccably, supported admirably by the other female singers on backing vocals, with the call and response sections immaculately despatched.
Chloe Dupree and Arabella Rodrigo provided backing vocals, and took some leads, shimmying as if their lives depended upon it. Often the role can be mundane. Not with Bacharach’s music. The harmonies are complex, and a vital part of the songs, get them wrong and the lead vocalist will not be happy. Both Chloe and Arabella never missed a note, physically performed each song as though it was their lead, and were an integral part of the success of each song. On their leads, Chloe performed with effervescence and gusto, while Arabella was so hot I feared she might implode into a black hole.
The band, led by pianist David Foster, comprising drums, bass, guitar, keyboards and three piece brass section, were superb, ably complementing the talented vocalists with arrangements which were demanding to perform as well as sing. Credit should also be given to the uncredited sound engineer who had the daunting task of mixing eleven sound sources and balancing them so well, loud enough to stir, soft enough to stroke.
By chance, I had occasion to chat with the production’s Tour Manager Sue Howell pre show, she enthusiastically declared her passion for the production, a passion which was evident from everyone who took the stage. We started with “Magic Moments”, where it all started, cried a little during “Close to You” sang along during “ What’s new Pussycat?” and gave a standing ovation for the ensemble finale of “That’s What Friends Are For”.
A fabulous night, from a richly talented company, who generously came front of stage at the end to meet and greet. They were greeted without exception with expressions of gratitude for a memorable night. Back to Bacharach tours nationally, dates from their website: http://www.back-to-bacharach.co.uk/
This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.