At the age of sixty-one, Elaine Paige could reasonably be putting her feet up and relaxing. With four decades of appearances in musical theatre behind her, she can look back on celebrated appearances in shows such as Evita, Hair, Chess, Cats, The King and I, Anything Goes and Piaf with the utmost satisfaction, while her weekly BBC Radio 2 on Sundays continues to draw large audience figures.
But she's back on stage with a new tour of the UK and bringing together all of her big hits, which she combines with a very personal account of her career. If there were some shaky moments of intonation in this London leg of the tour at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the overall entertainment level was undoubtedly high, and the richness of Paige's voice in the middle still allows her to give expressive and moving performances.
The two opening numbers ('Life Goes On' and 'Tomorrow') were rather strained, but Paige settled down with 'Easy to be Hard', a number from Hair. The clarity of her diction was a strength throughout the concert and was apparently particularly in Stephen Sondheim's wordy 'Broadway Baby', which was interspersed with an account of some of her early experiences in the theatre. Her modest height was always an issue, so she didn't get to play parts such as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, but Paige brought insight and nuance to the character's 'I Don't Know How to Love Him' at this concert. 'Hello, Young Lovers' from The King and I was another of her more subtle performances from the first half of the show, while perhaps the highlight was a performance of a new song written especially for her by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, dealing with the fact that 'the best things come in little packages'.
An early encounter with Dustin Hoffman encouraged Paige to persevere with her career; here she sang a pleasant but slightly nondescript song called 'Shoot the Breeze' which was co-written by Hoffmann and Bette Midler. The result of pursuing her dream led to Evita, in which Paige scored her first major hit, and she closed the first half of the concert with her audition piece – the Beatles' 'Yesterday' – and 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina', a song which is still her own and which she communicated powerfully, even if there were one or two insecurely-pitched notes.
It was a splendid piece of theatrical calculation on Paige's part to begin the second half in costume as Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, from which she sang 'As If We Never Said Goodbye'. For me, the performance was slightly overcooked, but it had a rousing reception from the packed audience. More impressive to my mind was 'By the Sea' from Sweeney Todd, which Paige performed at the New York City Opera a few years ago and suited to perfection here. An anecdote about the Queen Mother and Cole Porter introduced a big band version of the composer's 'I Get a Kick Out of You' from Anything Goes. Paige inhabited the suaveness of the song to perfection, and, as with the Sondheim, showed her musical versatility with a change of style.
'I Know Him So Well' from Chess was marred by an apparently problem with the amplification for Paige's backing singer who duetted with her in the number, but I thought her rendition of 'Someone Else's Story' from the same show was outstanding in terms of control and inflection. The official part of the concert came to an arresting conclusion with three numbers from Piaf. Of these, the classic 'Non, je ne regrette rien' stood out for the clever attempt to emulate the great French songbird, while 'If You Love Me' was also richly executed.
An extrovert performance of 'Cry Me a River' brought the programme to an end, but naturally Paige's signature tune, 'Memory' from Cats, had to be offered as an encore, and she also excelled in the second encore, 'With One Look' from Sunset Boulevard.
This wasn't a subtle evening of music, rendered less so by the excessively loud amplification. But Paige's willingness to give of her all and acknowledge that she's past the peak of her vocal prowess made it an endearing occasion, while her innate abilities as a performer and interpreter of song ensured that it was far from being a mundane affair. Fans of musical theatre shouldn't miss the remainder of her tour, which calls at Ipswich, Cambridge, Leeds and Eastbourne, where it ends next Monday.
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