Billy London Update

Baby Bunton got a new lease on life due to Absolutely Fabulous.  Someone else who benefited from Patsy and Edina’s attention is Lulu.  The singer has been a staple in the UK since she was a tot, but in the States she’s best known for acting in and singing the title song from To Sir With Love.  Since AbFab, you can go into any gay bar in the world and exclaim, “Champagne for Lulu”, and people know exactly who you’re talking about.  In March, Lulu went into the smash London production of the musical 42nd Street replacing another Scottish songbird – Sheena Easton.  Since I’m spending some time here, I decided to check it out – especially since this is Lulu’s first West End show in three decades!  No matter how many times I see 42nd Street, I am always taken with how engaging and entertaining it is.  Yes, it’s an old-fashioned, creaky musical, but I just can’t resist those dancing feet.  The production is really flawless from top to bottom with a hard-working, talented cast.  Lulu is just the icing on the cake – but, oh, what icing it is.  Everything she does is delicious.  She sings, she dances, she poses, she snipes.  She’s Lulu, and she’s a national treasure.

I was told Lulu was waiting for me backstage, so off I went.  I was barely in the stage door when I heard her unmistakable voice yell, “Hello, gorgeous!”  I always forget she’s a little bit of a thing.  But, my God, what energy and star power.  She had just come offstage and was dashing out to see the fans waiting for her, but I asked her to pose for a quick photo with me.  As I looked around for someone to take the picture, Lulu snatched the phone out of my hand and said, “Oh, I’ve got loads of experience taking selfies – smile!”  And, just like that, she took the snap.  If you want to see her in the show, act quickly – she’s only there until the middle of June.


I also went to the opening night of Chess at the London Coliseum.  The English National Opera has made an annual tradition of presenting a semi-staged musical in the spring, and this marked the first West End revival of Chess in over 30 years (no, Lulu wasn’t in it).  To hear this glorious score played by a full symphonic orchestra is something I’ll never forget.  While the music was great, the story is as problematic as ever.  This is the third production of Chess I’ve seen in the past two years – and each time I swear I’ve seen a different show.  It’s as if I’m seeing a musical version of Clue!  Characters change nationality, locations change, motivations are different, even the endings can change.  Of all the versions, I believe Seth Rudetsky’s from the 2003 Actors Fund benefit came closest to solving the problems.

Back to the ENO – this was also quite a night.  Things kicked off brilliantly when the press documented the arrival of the original female lead, Elaine Paige.  Her counterpart onstage in this production was the remarkable Cassidy Janson.  As Freddy, Tim Howar really ripped into the role.  Side note – he had to leave the first preview during intermission because his wife went into labor!  Alexandra Burke played Svetlana – and, once again, the show surprised us by giving her a new song!  If you don’t know Burke, she won Britain’s X Factor, and previously appeared in West End productions of The Bodyguard and Sister Act: The Musical.  I knew she could sing, but she can really act, too.  As far as I was concerned, the weakest link in the cast was Michael Ball.  Yes, he’s a West End icon and I usually love him, but in this he seemed stiff, awkward, and just out of sync with the rest of the cast (and completely implausible as Burke’s husband).  But was he bad?  No.  Ultimately, the star of the evening was the show itself – presented more-or-less in its original version.  And how wonderful it was that creators Benny and Björn (from ABBA) and Tim Rice were together to celebrate the event.  If you are a fan, do not wait for a transfer or an extension.  See it before it closes on June 2nd.

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