Jason Robert Brown is a name that is maybe unfamiliar to the casual theatregoer, but you wouldn’t think that was the case sat in the packed London Palladium for his BBC Radio 2 concert. It is a treat in itself to have Brown in the UK, but the extra appeal of this occasion was that he was joined by the BBC Orchestra, all 60 of them! And what an occasion it was. You couldn’t help but smile as one beautiful song after another were performed with magnificent orchestrations that would leave even the faintest of musical theatre fan appreciating the pure class of both the writing and delivery.
The show opened with just Brown on the piano singing “Hope”, an optimistic ballad that he wrote following the 2016 US election. Following this blissfully thoughtful and sombre peace, I wondered how much the orchestra would actually add to these songs. I didn’t have to wait long for my answer. “Melinda” took full advantage of the brass and percussion section to belt out this cross between samba and rock. These early songs were just a taste of the styles and genres covered in the show – a true credit to the composer’s diversity.
Possibly the most impressive use of the orchestra for me personally, however, was “Old Red Hills of Home” from Parade. Admittedly, I have quite a biased opinion given it is the opening number of one of my favourite musicals, but the combination of the military sounding orchestra, and Brown’s emotional vocals as he sang this soldier’s loving goodbye, left me in awe.
While Jason Robert Brown sang a large proportion of the numbers himself, he was also joined by West End and Broadway stars, Rachel Tucker, Betsy Wolfe and Norm Lewis. Already aware of the calibre of these performers, my expectations were high and I was not disappointed. Despite claiming to be a fan of Jason Robert Brown, I confess that my knowledge of his musical Bridges of Maddison County is rather limited. Following Lewis and Wolf’s take of “One Second and a Million Miles”, I imagine that this will change quite quickly. Late in the programme, Tucker delivered the show stopping moment, however, with “Flying Home”, receiving a standing ovation in return.
In addition to his musical abilities, Brown is irresistibly charming and was consistently witty and entertaining in the interludes between songs. He remarkably made the 2,000 seater Palladium feel small, and while not shying away from the prestigious event, brought a casual and welcoming feel to the evening. This meant that even though there were a couple of times when a song needed restarting, he already had the forgiving audience onside.
For a concert, getting the set list right is vitally important and on this occasion there was very little room for numbers from some of Brown’s more well-known musicals. Did this matter? Not in the slightest. In fact, it was wonderfully refreshing to listen so many brilliant musical numbers that I hadn’t heard before. That being said, I was far from disappointed that he managed to find room for the belter “I Can Do Better Than That”!
It is a shame that this was a one-off concert but gaging the response after the show, it seems Jason Robert Brown has a pretty strong fan base in the U.K. As mentioned, I was already a fan of his work and so it may not come as a huge surprise that I found this night so enjoyable. What was particularly pleasing was my friend who came along with very limited prior knowledge of the composer, was also blown away, as it seems, was the rest of the audience.