Review of A Christmas Carol the Musical in Concert by London Musical Theatre Orchestra

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Tuesday, 20 December, 2016
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You can't move for adaptations of Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' at this time of year and stage productions of this festive tale now seem as common place as pantomimes in the seasonal scheduling. This one night only event from the London Musical Theatre Orchestra brought Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens' relatively unknown setting to the West End in a concert format, led by Robert Lindsay as Scrooge in a role that feels like a natural fit for his haughty wit and charming sneer. Backed by a talented cast of soloists including Norman Bowman, Alex Gaumond and Hugh Maynard it provided a welcome hit of festive cheer and an original spin on the much-loved tale.

Despite this musical version being a hit in the United States, having thrilled audiences annually at the Paramount Theatre in Madison Square Garden from 1994 to 2003, the score is not especially well known to British ears despite having been made into a TV-movie with Kelsey Grammar in 2004. At its finest moments it channels prime Alan Menken with dramatic vamps and memorable toe-tappers, but doesn't ever find its real takeaway hit, despite the talented cast's best efforts to deliver one.

The 31 strong London Musical Theatre Orchestra certainly perform the score with authentic technical skill and gusto, blasting from their spot centre stage and filling the Lyceum Theatre with a spirited and boisterous sound. In introducing the concert, conductor Freddie Tapner commented that the purpose of the evening was to let the music take centre stage, sacrificing dance breaks and staging to our musical imagination. Whilst this is certainly achieved, the orchestra also needs to serve its singers by supporting and not overpowering them. At times the soloists and ensemble felt like a necessary evil to be overcome by the orchestra who played at one level, fortissimo, throughout, never quite letting the voices shine despite their fine performances. For a one-off event, sound mixing problems can be forgiven, but more attention should be paid between the overall balance especially when storytelling is required.

For all its spirit and commitment at times it felt too much of a wall of sound with a lack of musical sensitivity to bring out the vocal passages and the bombast of the event threatened to undermine the cast's valiant efforts to be heard above the music. I'm all for the orchestra taking centre stage, but the singers themselves need to be heard and lyrics understood in order for musical theatre to work – perhaps a difficult balance in the philosophy of the orchestra which aims to “have fun” with their music.

Whilst at least half of Lynn Ahren's lyrics were inaudible at least it was a story most of the audience seemed familiar with. Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens' book is serviceable to the Dickens' text lifting famous passages that are repeated with a familial warmth that are as part of the season as the ritualistic fight to avoid the Toffee Penny. There's some pleasing additions to the narrative, shoehorning the novella structure into the traditional form of a Broadway musical including an attempt to offer a psychological explanation to Scrooge's misery which feels overtly American and loses its Dickensian whimsy. All the core ingredients remain from the lively Fezziwig Christmas Party to Tiny Tim's “god bless us, every one”, and it's somewhat refreshing to discover a skilfully written new adaptation.

It's hard to be a humbug about an evening that offers such charming festive pleasures, and despite at times feeling a little too pleased with itself it certainly sends you out with a song in your heart and enough Christmas cheer to get you through to the end of the working week. The semi-staged musical theatre concert format is a tricky one to get spot on, and LMTO's are still finding their feet and judging by the audience reaction are becoming a welcome addition for musical theatre fans young and old.


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