Julian Eaves reviews London Musical Theatre Orchestra’s A Christmas Carol in Concert starring Gryff Rhys Jones at London’s Lyceum Theatre.
A Christmas Carol
17th December 2018
Fast becoming a much loved fixture on the Christmas circuit, London Musical Theatre Orchestra’s spectacular festive offering made its third visit to this magnificent Bertie Crewe building, with a short run of three performances. Many regulars were on hand to see it through, although there was a newcomer cutting his teeth on the role of Scrooge, Gryff Rhys Jones. The star of the occasion, however, was very much the sensational band – and lovely chorus – all under the expert command of this works’ British champion, Freddie Tapner, who gave us the best rendition yet of Alan Menken’s most musically sophisticated and complex popular composition, raking in a double standing ovation at the close from a near to capacity house for his troupe’s performance. That marked an interesting shift in the centre of gravity of the show, which has hitherto belonged – wonderfully – to the previous lead, Robert Lindsay.
The contrast is refreshing. While Lindsay can command a vast space with a mere look, using his stillness to create volcanic tension, combining menace with mockery in an uncanny cocktail, Jones takes us on a more internal, human journey, making his Ebeneezer a more troubled and uncertain character than we are used to thinking of this role, trying to bury himself in his work and seeking to evade – unsuccessfully, of course – the demons that pursue him. Jones’ approach, engagingly, allows for a more intimate encounter with those around him.
First beneficiary of this, in Shaun Kerrison’s deft direction, was Jeremy Secomb in stunning voice as the fearsome Jacob Marley, seizing every note and investing it with Verdian attack and drive. And let me put in a cheer for Matthew McDonald’s brief moment of glory as Mr Smythe: plucked from the chorus to sing this short scene, he turned it into a stunner, with some really sensational top ringers – the memory of which lingers long after they have ceased to resonate. David Hunter’s Bob Cratchit was warm and personable and, endearingly, thoroughly modern in his manner: there was a great naturalness to everything he did in his studious avoidance of any hint of melodrama. Caroline Sheen was perfectly matched to him as his spouse (and also as Scrooge’s mother). And Tobias Ungleson stole all hearts with his Tiny Tim, sung with brilliance and perfect clarity, paired with Anaya Patel’s sweet Martha Cratchit.
Rosemary Ashe doesn’t get much chance to sing in her two little roles of the invented housekeeper, Mrs Mops, and Mrs Fezziwig, but my goodness she made every syllable tell. More made use of, Nicolas Colicos’ Beadle, Mr Fezziwig and Old Joe gave him a broad scope of colours to create, particularly in his final, vocally thrilling incarnation. Jon Tarcy had more to do as Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, and Lucie Jones, her voice in splendidly relaxed and easeful shape, made a daringly Marianne-esque figure as his spouse (among other roles): sex is often ignored in Dickens, but he was too good a writer to leave out such a powerful force entirely. It is wonderful at such concert events to see how singers present themselves: a case in point is the extraordinary phenomenon that is Miriam-Teak Lee, who created a vividly statuesque Ghost of Christmas Past (among other parts) in a remarkable ivory gown with astonishing, diaphanous, cloaked sleeves, of which she made skillful use: her singing – and poise – were equally dramatic, with a haircut firmly linking her to the here and now.
The theatrical temperature rose still further when we got to meet the Ghost of Christmas Present at the start of the second act: this rousing treat of a number, a kind of Menken-esque ‘Spirit of Life’, was led by the honey-voiced Cedric Neal in his most impish mode – and a white suit. While the packed stage of the Lyceum (and it is a big stage) did not allow for much movement, Kerrison nonetheless succeeded in animating this number, as with so many others, with just enough ‘movement’ to remind us that this show is an all-singing and all-dancing spectacle, designed by its makers (add in lyricist Lynne Ahrens and book writer-cum-director, Mike Ockrent and the original choreographer, Susan Stroman) to fill New York’s Madison Square Garden for several weeks every yuletide season.
Yet, the real source of the excitement was in the ravishing score. Michael Starobin’s orchestrations draw (generously, but always super-intelligently) on the great symphonic tradition of western music: right from the overture, a sparklingly nimble creation with oh, so subtle transitions and modulations, we recall perhaps Rimsky-Korsakov in the sheer theatrical richness of textures and sensuous delight in instrumental colours. The same superb quality of musicality continues uninterrupted for most of the show’s two-hour plus running time – there are hardly any moments without some music playing – with even simple passages of underscoring lent originality and specificity in the perfectly apt choice of timbres and registers. In this version of the story, the orchestra, and the multi-layered ensembles, winningly recreate Dickens’ busy, highly detailed prose method, piling up the picture of an entire world being created for us.
Mike Robertson was on hand to light it all to sublime perfection, managing the transitions between scenes, and moods, with beautiful precision and care. Nick Lidster and Avgoustos Psillas (for Autograph Sound) did the same magic trick with the amplification. And AMD Geddy Stringer assisted in the musical team. But a final word has to go to the cheeky humour of Mikey Impiazzi, who – perhaps more than anyone – reminded us that this is Dickens’ hymn of praise and thanksgiving to the true spirit of Christmas, that of fun-loving children. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?