Michael Ball and Alfie Boe at Symphony Hall
Redbrick - 27/11/16 ~
Some things just seem made to go together. Fish and chips, for example, as well as wine and chocolate, and for many a UoB student, maybe even Fab and a Roosters (!). However, it seems one more thing can now be added to that list – Michael Ball and Alfie Boe. Ball is a double Olivier Award winning theatre legend, a multi-platinum recording artist, live concert performer and a popular radio and TV presenter. Boe, not to be outdone, is Britain's biggest-selling tenor, has led the cast of Les Misérables and Finding Neverland on Broadway, and has sold more than a million albums and four top 10 albums. Now, the musical legends are touring together, and have swept into Birmingham’s Symphony Hall for two concerts, showcasing a mix of their most famous songs, some stunning duets, and telling some of the stories that inevitably are borne out of their stellar careers.
Even before the show begins, it is clear to see that this is going to be a rather splendid occasion. Symphony Hall’s stage is set for a large band and orchestra, and the packed audience is buzzing, humming with anticipation. The lights dim, and suddenly the glorious orchestrations of Somewhere/ Tonight from Sondheim’s classic West Side Story fill the space. From that moment on, we are treated to two or so rather electrifying hours.
The show contains a mixture of musical theatre hits, covers of rock and pop from across the decades, and even a medley or two of cinematic greats, many of which are taken from their new album. It’s an eclectic mix that suits them well, and never once does the evening seem to drag. A beautiful cover of Lloyd-Webber’s ‘Music of the Night’, from the smash-hit The Phantom of the Opera, features gorgeous harmonies that somehow elevate the song beyond even the unnaturally haunting beauty it usually possesses, and Boe’s closing high note, mixed beautifully with the lower tones of Ball, is stunning. Indeed, the reason this show and their partnership works this well at all lies at least partially in the striking fit their voices are for each other. A rendition of Willy Russell’s ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ from Blood Brothers is a slow build that comes to a crescendo that leaves many members of the audience shaking their heads in disbelief at the skill on show, and the softer imagining of Christina Perri’s ‘A Thousand Years’ is also a highlight. A Bond Medley in the second half is a genius choice that utilises the best of both voices, and makes one wonder whether a Bond theme by the pair would be a pretty great one.
The pair have a natural stage presence, perhaps a reason why so many audience members are enthralled throughout, and why they maintain commercial and theatrical success after years in the business. They joke around with each other, back and forth quips and anecdotes filling the spaces between songs with ease, and they even play around with the audience. At one point, during a semi-acoustic version of ‘What a Wonderful World’, Boe climbs down from the stage into the aisle to find a woman who has dared to nip out to the toilet during the first half – he returns, mid song, escorting her back to her seat after several somewhat witty jokes about her loo habits, before struggling to climb back up onto the stage. They joke about someone actually buying some of their merchandise, and David, the random older gent who is the buyer in question, eventually is rewarded with a bottle of bubbly after bearing the brunt of a few jokes. It’s all in the name of good fun, and indeed there’s something quite down to earth about it all, especially when they laugh so much that they throw each other off count, and even lose a song completely, only to pull it back professionally moments later.
Amongst the duets are moments of individual triumph. Boe sizzles in a medley of Elvis classics, his classic tenor taking on many of the characteristics of Presley’s voice, and his hips gaining a sway that has some of the predominantly female audience visibly fanning themselves with their programmes! ‘Gethsemane’, from Jesus Christ Superstar, is heartbreakingly performed by Ball, and he also leads a version of a song that defined his career, ‘Love Changes Everything’, very much encouraging the audience to sing along. However, the star moment of the show has to be Boe’s rendition of Pete Townshend’s Love Reign O’er Me, a The Who classic from the Quadrophenia era. His glorious operatic tones work with the orchestra’s stunning realisation of the melody and it feels almost like we are witnessing something somehow sacred and of the moment. It is gloriously sung, and the audience responds with rapturous applause.
The pair close the show with a medley from the show that plays a large role in the career of both men – Les Misérables. The triple bill of ‘Bring Him Home’, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ and ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ exemplifies their talent, and it is apparent just why this leads their album – extraordinarily powerful, it feels like a profound realisation of what both have achieved. Earlier in the evening, Ball emphatically reaffirms his belief in the power of musical theatre, and the unique way in which musicals can impact audiences from all backgrounds and ages – this medley is perhaps the truest justice they could do to this statement, and tears mark the faces of many. Their encore is a poignant yet triumphant version of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, the audience rising and singing along in a truly magical moment. I hear one lady remark, as the audience slowly leaves the auditorium, that it has been one of the best evenings of her life – I’d be hard pressed to disagree, so brilliant is are the duo of Boe and Ball.