Hammersmith Review

~ TheTimes, 23/12/1994 by Alan Jackson ~

Such a nice boy, and what a good voice

Alan Jackson avoids the souvenirs, but leaves with happy memories of one man and other people's music. Because I arrived nice and early, there was ample time to buy a programme and a bottle of sophisticated foreign lager and to settle down to study the full range of Michael Ball's facial expressions. He could smile for Britain, that's for sure.

See him do it with closed lips and a hint of a raised eyebrow, while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Shirley Bassey, herself sporting an Ivana Trump hairstyle and the kind of full beam more often associated with car headlights.

See him do it with his top row of teeth bared and a boyish twinkle (in tandem with the leonine-tressed Daryl Hall); with a full complement of teeth on display and a hint of a giggle (while cuddling up to Lulu), and even in circumstances that would make many a weaker man crack (like finding yourself next to Robert Palmer, who is wearing the world's widest tie and too much Brylcreem).

But that's not all Ball can offer on the physiognomic front. He can also do boyish and cuddly. He can do sad-eyed vulnerability as well. And he does a very nice line in winsome, if winsome is what you're after.

The largely female audience for Wednesday night's show at the Hammersmith Apollo the first of two appearances bringing to an end a 17-date British tour seemed more than happy with such versatility, and turned the glossy pages of their own programmes admiringly.

Many had been tempted by the displays of Michael merchandise in the foyer, and some had succumbed, proving the wisdom of a pricing policy that seemed extremely and endearingly reasonable by normal pop standards. "If you can't treat yourself at Christmas, when can you?" one woman asked rhetorically, as she opted for a Pounds 22 sweatshirt and Pounds 4 poster. "When indeed?" I replied, feigning interest in the night's star bargain, a key ring priced at Pounds 2.

Inside the auditorium the atmosphere was part West End theatre matinee, part office party. There were older ladies in tweed coats and sensible shoes, younger women with tinsel in their hair and astonishingly high heels, and occasional couples some hand-holding Mr and Mrs Marrieds, enjoying a night away from the kids, and others carefully dressed young men, casual but smart in their jeans and sports jackets.

It all went to epitomise the wide audience Ball enjoys these days, thanks, in part at least, to the impetus of his television variety series this past summer, on which he smiled and sang not only with the aforementioned guests but also the assorted likes of Cher, Tony Bennett, James Brown and Montserrat Caballe. The television people would seem to feel that he is the acceptable, cross-generational face of light entertainment, and his energetic, 100-minute performance helped to show why.

Not surprisingly, it's mainly to do with the voice. As muscular as you would expect from an artist who has been a leading man on the London and Broadway stages, it is also ever-so-slightly characterless amid the hustle and bustle of a contemporary pop arrangement. Which is actually something of a virtue. Because, while many musical theatre stars sound arch and slightly ridiculous when attempting more mainstream material, Ball is able to carry off a range of styles with enthusiasm and a eager-to-impress charm.

Having appeared, rather self-importantly, at the top of an on-stage stairway to open with Carly Simon's "Let The River Run", he proved the point by singing first the old Walker Brothers hit "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any More", then Elton John's recent "Circle Of Life". Neither version could hope to be definitive, but Ball's self-belief and strong presentation made them comfortably better than adequate.

The difficulty of tracking down strong original material is obviously a problem a recent album, One Careful Owner, suffers as a result. Which is why Ball is still best on songs from the shows selections from Les Mis, Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard and West Side Story where drama and pace are inbuilt. But a welcome sign that his confidence is growing in other areas came via a genuinely moving version of the theme from the Bette Midler film, The Rose which is also the title song of a forthcoming television series on women's health issues, and with all proceeds from its singles sales going to Research into Ovarian Cancer, the charitable fund Ball did a great deal to launch.

Somehow the greater whole had the look and feel of a made-for-television special, particularly in such segments as the Big Apple section, where Billy Joel's "New York State Of Mind " segued into the Drifters classic "On Broadway". Equally the trio of ballad hits written by Paul Williams for the Carpenters and the doo-wop version of "Why Do Fools Fall In Love", performed in tight harmony with three backing singers and members of Ball's 11-piece mini-orchestra seemed obvious set-pieces, designed to distract from the singer's lack of a convincing back-catalogue of his own. And, amid it all, Michael emoted, smouldered and gave his all, whether dancing in his winningly clumsy style, or standing nonchalantly with his hand in his trouser pocket, as self-conscious as the male models you see on the front of patterns for chunky-knits.

There were bizarre moments: the audience hanging on his every word as he reprised the latest plot development concerning Samir and Deirdre, Curly and Raquel in Coronation Street, and the concert equivalent of a pitch invasion that occurred when he sang his Eurovision runner-up "One Step Out Of Time". But, as row upon transfixed row roared its appreciation of the climactic "Love Changes Everything", his first chart hit, it was impossible not to be struck by the singer's powerful hold on an audience.

There's a bit of the Cliff Richard about his stage presence, a touch of the David Essex and the Marti Pellow too. Charmers all, and each similarly proficient at smiling. But, with time, luck and experience, there is no reason why Ball should not emerge, triumphantly, as his own man.

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