Julian Eaves reviews King the musical by Martin Smith presented by the London Musical Theatre Orchestra at Hackney Empire.
Since leaving this house as its Artistic Director last year, Susie McKenna has been working as an independent director and this production, jointly presented by her old home and one of its regular visiting companies – the magnificent London Musical Theatre Orchestra – is a triumphant achievement.
Having long championed reaching out to new and under-represented audiences, it was a thrill to see this handsome Frank Matcham 1275-seater venue packed out for two nights running with one of the most diverse musical theatre audiences we've seen in a long time. Aptly coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the murder of Dr Martin Luther King, the decision to revive Martin Smith's almost completely forgotten work was a brave and inspired decision, and one richly rewarded by the ecstatic reception given to this virtually unknown piece.
Smith was not a practised creator of musicals, but he was a hugely talented beginner when he wrote this through the 1980s, very much in the manner of Bio-Musicals of the time: there is an emphasis on creating effects through alternating big numbers and powerful ballads, and he was pretty adept at writing both. His musical language here is idiomatically precise, reflecting with often uncanny exactitude the styles of jive, the Count Basie Big Band, Quincey Jones, Motown, soul, gospel, operetta, Country & Western and even rap, while also referencing the techniques and gestures of Andrew Lloyd Webber and his other contemporaries. Smith's credentials as a songwriter mean that even today, many of his numbers pack a considerable punch.
Inevitably, as with any new writer there are weaknesses, and where Smith scores much less is in his capacity to create a well-shaped and compelling dramatic arc: crucially, he is hamstrung by his inability to find any involving ‘journey' for his central character. There is some compensation for this in the much more successful handling of the part of the hero's wife, Coretta, but so many of the other roles are just used to deliver exposition, rather than to invite audiences to join with them on a voyage of discovery.
Nevertheless, in very capable hands – like those on offer in this presentation – we spend less time worrying about the technical flaws of the piece and find ourselves swept away by its sheer emotional power. And we could hardly have hoped for a better cast than this one.
Cedric Neal in the title role has impressed many times before as a very gifted performer, but here he demonstrated hands down his credentials as an out-and-out star, more than capable of carrying an entire show: the part of Dr Martin Luther King is a very, very big sing, with an enormous string of demanding numbers to get through – how that might practically be possible in the commercial world of show business I haven't the slightest idea – and in this occasional concert situation he was able to showcase his manifold talents to breath-taking effect: his rendition of the ‘I Have A Dream' speech, which Smith partly musicalised as the conclusion to the first act, reduced me to floods of tears, and that – dear Readers – is not something that happens very often. this was the core strength of Smith's version of King: otherwise, he was forced to act out what was pretty much a hagiography, going from one station in the pastor's life to another, accompanied by a saintly follow-spot halo. Neal reacted by underplaying the dramatics as much as possible, saving up the passion for special moments. Meanwhile, over and above his startlingly convincing ability as an actor, we adored hearing his fine, glowing tenor voice, even throughout the entire range, with simply stunning head notes – and plenty of them, as well as perfect diction and crystal clear phrasing supported by his fantastic technique and breath control. Musically, he set the tone for the entire cast.
As his wife, Coretta, Debbie Kurup (lately ‘The Gypsy' in ‘Girl From The North Country') had arguably the more dramatically varied and involving role… eventually; much of the earlier part of the script gave her little to do except smile and wave, but when meatier fare came along, she seized it avidly and made the maximum dramatic capital out of it. Having her bookend the show with the same scene enabled us to see – very plainly – just what a journey it had been for her. Again, she is a leading lady.
Sharon D Clarke, on the other hand, is a major star. Amazingly, we are blessed in the UK by having first dibs on her, and she mixes a career in the commercial world with roles in the subsidised and Off-West End sectors. Here, as the mother, Alberta King, she didn't have too much to do, but made wonderful events out of those occasions when she got to sing expressively. Her first act, ‘Keep On Believing', was an absolute ace and in Clarke's hands sounded like a big hit.
Commercial success, however, eluded the creator of this work, and one of the reasons it has been so difficult to revive is the sheer cost of financing no fewer than 19 soloists, plus chorus and band, especially when they really have to be cast with experts. Even in the small roles of J Edgar Hoover (the outstanding, show-stealing performance of Clive Carter) playing the Grand Inquisitor to John F Kennedy's (Alexander Hanson) King Philip, you need real quality. You also need it with characters like Ralph Abernathy (a polished Cavin Cornwall), or the steely Rosa Parks of Carole Stennett (who DID double lots of OTHER parts!), Adam J Bernard's Stokely Carmichael and Matt Dempsey's pantomimic Robert Kennedy (and other roles).
As others around the Doctor, Jo Servi was delicious as Ed Nixon, Angela M Caesar emotionally involving as the Grieving Mother, Alice and a Church Elder, Naana Agyei-Ampadu played a College Dance Chaperone, Civil Rights Activist, Freedom Rider, Church Lady and Black Power Activist; Daniel Bailey, Raffaella Covino, Adrian Hansel, Sinead Long and Olivia Hibbert all played many roles, and some more were supplied by the very useful and intense John Barr and also Johnathan Tweedie, while Amari Small took the part of the Young Martin. All the above were backed by the Hackney Empire Community Choir and the Gospel Essence Choir, with splendid choral arrangements by Joseph Roberts.
Filling most of the stage, however, was the ever improving London Musical Theatre Orchestra; they absolutely gloried in the spectacularly brilliant musical arrangements by Simon Nathan. Nathan perfectly captured the kaleidoscopic references in the score, and got his players to reflect those styles while always remaining true to the intention of the score. But it was MD and founder Freddie Tapner who walked off with the most striking plaudits: if ever a musical theatre show could claim to be the ‘Mahler 8' of the genre, then this is it, and Tapner showed himself more than up to the challenge.