This musical is one of my firm favourites, but the lead casting choices didn’t fill me with joy when they were first announced. I’m familiar with both Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe as popular singers of mainly operatic fare (although neither have ever sung in a full-length opera), and to me they were hardly the embodiment of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan.
However, the supporting cast and the spectacular full-staging has been gathering praise despite some lukewarm reviews from both professional and blogging critics, and I do like the score, so I bit the bullet and bought a couple of tickets in the Upper Circle, which were overpriced and allowed fairly awful views and minimal leg room.
The show, though, has some great numbers and the ensemble pieces were well-delivered (‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over’, ‘Blow High, Blow Low’, ‘What’s The Use of Wond’rin’), with some excellent chorus work and choreography. Derek Hagen as Jigger, Brenda Edwards as Nettie, and Davide Fienauri as the dancing Carnival Boy need special mention as they lifted the energy and engagement levels whenever they appeared.
Gavin Spokes gives a real comic edge as well as some serious singing class to the role of Mr Snow, while Alex Young is a splendid Carrie, rightly getting warm applause for ‘When I Marry Mr Snow’ and ‘When The Children Are Asleep’. This last song is a duet between Young and Spokes, who demonstrate the chemistry that is sadly lacking in the big lead duet ‘If I Loved You’, which should pull the audience in to the sudden emotional and deep love between Billy and Julie.
Let’s talk about Katherine Jenkins as Julie. It’s been reported that as well as company voice coaching she has been receiving private acting lessons, and they have rubbed off as well as can be expected. However she cannot both sing sweetly and put across the complex emotional range needed for the character, leaving her numbers to be simply very nice to listen to for the melody. But in Act Two, where she has to engage with her wayward daughter, she’s fairly convincing, and her casting wasn’t the disaster I feared.
Which leaves Alfie Boe as Billy. Reviews have not been kind, primarily to the wig which has now been replaced with something more in keeping to what a carnival barker might have worn. His acting has been derided, too, with him being described as ‘a floorboard’, ‘a child pretending to be an adult’, and similar.
It may be the way the role was directed, but his stance is not in the least sexy or smouldering as it should be, and he’s just not convincing, and we don’t really understand what Julie sees in him. In fact at the start of the big seven-minute Act One closer, ‘Soliloquy’, the way he stood made me think of the actors who taught thick Prince George how to deliver a speech in Blackadder.
The ‘Soliloquy’, though, is the undoubted highlight of the role, and by the end, the strength of the song came through and the effect was rather touching; we did, at last, believe that this man had found the heart within himself on discovering he was to become a father.
The staging though was odd, with the revolving circle which had been used to great effect in the opening ‘Carousel Waltz’ overture to introduce all the character and the show’s name itself, in letters revolving, oddly, backwards. In the ‘Soliloquy’ Boe spent most of the number alone, as is right and proper for a number in which the character vocalises his thoughts, but I expected a bit more use of both space and backdrops than we got.
Act Two started with some drama, as we were told that Alfie Boe had been feeling progressively ill during the first act and was unable to continue, leaving understudy Will Barrett to come on and deal with the tricky scenes of Billy’s death, engagement with the Starmarker (Nicholas Lyndhurst, in little more than a cameo), and as an invisible observer to his daughter’s childhood. It would be hard to judge Barrett’s singing in Act Two as not much is required, but I felt he acted the part better, overall, and had a more believable engagement with Jenkins, as well as with Amy Everett, playing their daughter Louise.
Lonny Price directs, and Josh Rhodes is the choreographer, with David Charles Abell conducting the ENO Orchestra. And no matter what the publicity says, this is most certainly not a semi-staged musical, there is a full set, costumes and flavour. I can’t recommend it unreservedly due to the weakness of the two leads, but it is not the dud I thought it would be.