Broadway Showtunes

It is clear that the Department for Education has its beady, cost-cutting eye on extra-curricular activities such as drama and music: just the things that build the qualities like confidence and ‘soft skills’ like teamwork that are going to be most sought after in the workplace of tomorrow. So it is more important than ever that schools like Big Little Theatre School should thrive and on the evidence of this terrific show, ‘Big Little’ is indeed thriving.

The school was founded in 1996 and has been producing a show every year since. The show has settled into a well-tried format: segments from both well-known and more obscure musicals, with the work of each of the school’s three age-groups being showcased. This year’s programme is a great mixture, from Young Frankenstein to Peter Pan via High Society and Miss Saigon. It is performed with the confidence, energy and verve of youth, but also with precision and talent by a huge cast.

It is the precision that perhaps impresses most. There would have been a huge amount to learn and it must have taken hours and hours of rehearsal to produce a band of performers who move so well together. ‘I wanna be a Rockette’, with its Radio City Music Hall-type chorus line, is a brave choice, but the girls who perform it absolutely nail it. The ensemble singing is also spot-on in a way that can only be achieved by an awful lot of hard work. This is nowhere more evident than in the Ragtime section and a beautifully harmonised ‘Over the rainbow’, to which we are treated after the curtain calls.

One disadvantage of the format is that the segments are not long enough to create their own atmosphere, to catch the audience and carry us with them. Honourable exceptions are a powerful extract from Jesus Christ Superstar and a very moving Miss Saigon. A failing that could be addressed is that not much is sung below fortissimo. To be fair, that seems to be what today’s audiences prefer, and it may be partly the fault of the sound system, but more light and shade would add so much to songs like ‘True love’ and ‘I still believe’.

A simple, three-level set has become the standard for Big Little’s annual show, and why not? It works well and director Sam Taylor-Martin makes good use of it. She creates some wonderfully pretty pictures, helped by outstanding costumes: the lumi shorts, skirts, shirts, socks and even wrist-bands in Fame are perhaps the pinnacle, although Cinderella’s magic transformation dress is pretty special.

One cannot work out who’s who from the programme, but there is no individual performance that makes one feel that the next megastar of musical theatre is up there. It is no coincidence that Miss Saigon and Jesus Christ Superstar stand out, because Kim, Judas and Jesus all act well and have excellent voices: the last a high tenor that will stand him in good stead if he does make the stage his career. ‘No more’ from The Goodbye Girl is sung by four fine voices which also blend well together. Cinderella has a pleasant voice and attractive stage presence. The lad who plays Peter Pan must be no more than eleven, since it is one of the youngest age-group’s contributions, but he has a mature voice and terrific confidence. Perhaps the outstanding performance is as Kathy (Debbie Reynolds’s character) in ‘Good morning’ from Singin’ in the Rain: a lovely voice, no mean tap dancer and an instinctively graceful mover.

Broadway Showtime is at the Pavilion on 14 and 15 July at 7.30.