Rafy Hay reviews UCL Live Music Society’s ‘Rhapsody’
I went into the Shaw Theatre on Saturday night exhausted and pessimistic. I’d just overeaten obscenely and had to walk it off on the Regent’s Canal towpath for four hours. Not the best mindset for a reviewer, but what I saw and heard once I’d taken my seat and the lights went down blew me away.
Before the music had even started, I was wowed by the set design and lighting rig. The backlit figures emerging out of the smoke looked incredibly professional, and the tension built steadily until April Stanhope walked out to deliver the first song, a bombastic, maximalist arrangement of Katy Perry’s ‘Dark Horse’. The crowd went wild, and stayed that way through nearly three hours of performances.
The range of moods and genres was striking and ambitious, with very few missteps. The first half encompassed a cover of The Prodigy’s ‘Omen’ and ‘Invaders Must Die’ with enough infectious energy to make me want to mosh; a sensual, soft-focus Alt-J mix with a honey-smooth saxophone solo; a version of Rag’n’Bone Man’s ‘Human’ which gave me goosebumps; and the standout act of the night, a tone-perfect medley of Simon and Garfunkel hits which several people mentioned was their favourite and which I would be happy to have seen a whole concert of.
After a Latin-infused Lily Allen cover and a very sax-y Michael Jackson-Stayin’ Alive mix, the first half ended with an impressive Lady Gaga medley, with strong vocals and a surprisingly large string section.
The second half started with an even bigger bang than the first, with the operatic, sweeping ‘Knights of Cydonia’ by Muse. It’s testament to the talents of the arranger and musicians that they managed to make me really get into this song by a band I usually can’t stand. The following song, a cover of ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley, surprised me, with the slowed-down tempo and focus on the lyrics. Another stand-out song from the second half was a cover of ‘Riptide’, that song we all got sick of hearing back in 2014. This arrangement, with a charming lead vocal performance from Freddie House, brought something new and fresh to the song.
Several of the numbers were marred by unfavourable desk mixes, with certain vocal parts very hard to hear over unbalanced instrumentals and harmonies (I wish I’d been able to hear more of the mandolin in the country-blues rendition of KT Tunstall’s ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’. I think music could do with more mandolins in general). Even through this, though, the talent on display easily managed to shine through.
A couple of the singers could have done with a little more confidence (and a little less hand-gesturing), and the ambitious use of strings, while adding incredible depth to the arrangements, did become distracting when they were slightly out of tune. These were really minor quibbles though and my overall impression of the event was that it was outstanding.
The final three songs encapsulated the mood and tonal range of the evening, with a raucous MIKA medley led by two soaring vocal performances from Simon Whitaker and Ahilya Murkunde, followed by a soulful cover of Nicki Minaj’s ‘Grand Piano’ which had the audience completely enraptured. The final number, a thumping, showtune-esque version of P!nk’s ‘What About Us’ felt like the culmination of the evening, and the standing ovation from the audience was completely deserved.
While clearly a big team effort, director Alessandra Anderson-Lewis (who arranged 10 of the 24 songs and performed in 13) deserves special credit. The inventiveness and reach of the arrangements were stunning, with some purely clever and satisfying things, like a Tubular Bells-Enjoy the Silence mashup. The whole production was really professional and enjoyable, and I look forward to seeing more from everyone involved.
Featured image credit: UCL Live Music Society