When I stood on my balcony on New Years Eve thinking about the year to come, of all the things I thought, predicted, hoped against hope 2021 might bring, theatre re-opening was certainly one. Singing along to Britney Spears’ TOXIC in a packed West End theatre was probably not.
We can safely say by now that, yes, “theatre is BACK!” Theatres across the country from West End to fringe are selling almost as wide a variety of work as before lockdown, from the serious to the frivolous. Not ignoring the many theatres and companies that never stopped making work. West End Musical Celebration is firmly on the frivolous end of the scale, but after a year of working their hardest to try to keep theatre going – organising the popular West End Musical Brunches and West End Musical Drive Ins – West End Musical Productions have certainly earned the right to some frivolity and fun. Creative Director and musical theatre star Shanay Holmes (who produced, presented, and sang in this production, re-defining “triple threat”!) proved a warm, charismatic, and deeply moving host on the opening night of this extraordinarily joyous celebration of all things Musical Theatre.
Audiences were encouraged to clap, cheer, dance and sing along to MT legends Rachel John, Trevor Dion Nicholas, Layton Williams, Alice Fearn, Sophie Evans, and Ben Forster, who joined Holmes in belting out hits from both classic and contemporary musicals. Highlights included beloved audience favourites like Defying Gravity and Somewhere over the Rainbow, alongside numbers from Hairspray, Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, The Greatest Showman, Kinky Boots (a particular highlight, featuring a purple-velour clad – and then barely clad – Williams), the inevitable Frozen number (you know which one), and even taking in numbers from the TV series Smash, and a pop medley going from Lady Gaga to Britney by way of the White Stripes!
These bops and belts kept the audiences cheering and dancing, a luxurious buffet of delights sprinkling a few carefully chosen ballads amongst the more high-energy beats. Special praise has to be given to Howard Hudson’s stunning lighting design, and the spectacular array of costumes from designer Faye Young who must surely have single handedly created a worldwide sequin shortage.
For the most part this is a highlights reel, a West End Greatest Hits designed to keep feet tapping and smiles on full – but also to remind us of what we nearly lost, what we have lost, and what we’ve regained. Shanay Holmes’ beautiful speech in the second half pointed out West End Musical Productions is the only black-run commercial West End production company, and highlighted both the work they have done during lockdown, and the awareness last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests brought to theatre’s problems with racism and lack of racial equality. It’s to Holmes and the show’s credit that such an important speech felt utterly in place alongside the glitter, and segued well into the joyous final number From Now On. This show proves we will “come back home” and that we should all follow Holmes advice: “Live your best musical theatre life.”
West End Musical Celebration runs at the Palace Theatre until Sunday 13th June