Kerry Ellis at the Playhouse Theatre - Review
Three months after her planned arrival, Kerry Ellis took the Norwich Playhouse stage – exclaiming “Norwich, finally! Did you survive the snow?”
The added anticipation of those three months gave me plenty of time to build up and knock down my own expectations of the concert. Despite this, I still wasn’t prepared for what followed.
“Join Kerry Ellis as she embarks on a UK tour to celebrate 20 years since her West End debut,” proclaims the show’s tagline. Promising a recollection of two-decades worth of her Musical legacy. And that was exactly what she delivered, although not necessarily in the way I expected.
As well as providing the expected numbers from her most famous theatre roles – Elphaba from Wicked, and Meat from We Will Rock You – Ellis also proved her independence from the stage in singing original songs from her own albums, as well as exploring her eclectic vocal tones through her covers of Kansas, Elvis, and Ed Sheeran. The variety and technical ability she showcased was almost ridiculous to behold.
Opening the show with a selection of songs from her album Golden Days (a collaboration with Queen’s Brian May) – including ‘Roll with You’ and ‘Love in a Rainbow’ – Ellis, and her self-dubbed ‘Easy-On-the-Eye Band’, quietened a sold-out audience. Brian May’s rock influence was a heavy presence throughout the first set, which provided Ellis with many opportunities to engage with the audience – encouraging us to clap along, and, in some instances, sing.
Each song, specially chosen by Ellis, was accompanied by an explanation of why this song had proved so important to her during her twenty-years upon the stage. These little breaks felt as natural as her singing ability, proving her own personality as more than brilliant enough to carry off a performance upon the stage. In all honesty, I was not expecting to be laughing throughout her show, but, as soon as she gestured to her blue-sequin jumpsuit, offering it as proof of her midlife-crisis, I was hooked. Through her telling of stories about shows, and her building relationships with other artists, Ellis managed to turn an expected concert into an autobiographical exhibition of her career.
The Playhouse venue proved the perfect stage for this show, it was welcoming, personal, and warm. The stripped back nature of both the venue, and the stage set up, placed all eyes on Ellis as she took us back through her career. I truly believe that the atmosphere in the Playhouse is what convinced a slightly star struck audience to follow through with Ellis’s requests and sing. The first song she asked us to accompany has always been, for me, one I have associated with Norwich. It seemed that, for the first year of my living here, that I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ falling from buskers’ lips or flowing from an overhead speaker. To sing this song, one that everyone can attest to knowing, with a group of complete strangers was an awe-inspiring moment, serene and beautiful. Although in some respects it felt like Ellis had told us to forgo the cardinal rule of the Theatre, do not singalong, the tentative sound of the audience accompanying her proved a worthy reward.
However, it is not ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ that struck me as the greatest moment of audience accompaniment within her show. In explaining her legacy as the first British Elphaba on both the West End and the Broadway stage, Ellis told us about her work with other Elphabas, and one very special Galinda – Kristin Chenoweth. This story acted to preface the Wicked duet ‘For Good’, where Ellis requested all that knew the words to act as her Galindas. This request, to take half of the resonating ballad of such a prevalent and popular show, left me slightly dumbfounded – definitely more unsure of myself than with ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’, not because I didn’t know the words, but rather, because the emotional power of ‘For Good’ comes with a fair share of intimidation. And yet, we sang. Never before, and possibly never again, will I hear that song performed with so much reverence. These people, my fellow audience members, where brought together to watch a true member of Musical Theatre history, we were there due to a love of the art, and we proved this through our own version of ‘For Good’.
Even with so many instances of other voices encroaching upon the concert, Ellis’s soared above – so clear, and so controlled. There is little wonder that she has had such an amazing career over the last twenty-years.
The concert concluded with the highly anticipated ‘Defying Gravity’, a song cementing both her career upon the stage and her recording work with May. Hearing those final few notes, iconic in their own right, flying up into the rafters of the Playhouse theatre was all I expected it to be and more.
Although I have experienced both concerts and theatre performances, within Kerry Ellis’s 20th Anniversary Tour I saw the perfect collapse of both within the performance of someone whose career has been suspended between both worlds.