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‘Not simply a journey through history’: The Road to Prominence / Break Free – Thespie (Online review)

Thespie has launched its newest concerts in celebration of Black musicians and composers, and of LGBTQIA+ performers. These are now available on demand, and their proceeds go to Black Lives Matter and Stonewall respectively.

The Road to Prominence is directed by Dominic Powell. He created the new musical Cases (which was due to open at The Other Palace last year).

Moving away from the performer-led choices of early Thespie showcases, this looks instead at composers and shows which brought Black music to prominence.

Touching on the likes of Ain’t Misbehavin’ and The Wiz, the evolution of musicals dealing with the Black experience is fully explored.

From a peppy rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’, through to numbers from jukebox musicals Thriller Live and Tina, a cast of Black and dual heritage performers bring the best of diverse musical theatre to the screen.

Simply viewed as a concert out of context, the music is superb and well-chosen, although of course it can only be a snapshot of what is available to explore.

Following the recent stream of The Color Purple from Curve, it was good to revisit a couple of numbers from the show, and Aisha Jawando’s ‘I’m Here’ is a powerhouse of resilience and survival.

Other highlights are the sleepily sexy ‘Azure Te’ from the revue of Louis Jordan songs, Five Guys Named Moe; and a split-screen quartet of Alex Thomas-Smith, Adrian Hansel, Zoe Birkett and Jawando performing ‘Black and Blue’ from Ain’t Misbehavin’.

In the interview segments issues around labelling, expectation, and belonging are discussed by the performers in individual interviews. It made me reflect on what we accept as “white” and “black” roles and how Black performers can sometimes be sidelined as the token nod to diversity in a large cast.

This is an accomplished concert with enough information and signposts for you to find out more about these musical pioneers.

I have been researching and watching Black musicals for a while, going back to the birth of sound in the movies, and there is so much richness and talent to find and celebrate. I highly recommend you follow the leads given in this show and then explore for yourself.

With The Road to Prominence coming full-circle with an acapella performance from Powell’s Cases, it is clear that this is not simply a journey through history; but a hopeful glance forward into the possibilities of shows and characters gaining traction in the future.

In Break Free, queer performers take centre stage in a high energy show which opens with Queen’s “I Want to Break Free”, then moves through numbers of personal resonance to those singing them.

A touching duet from neglected musical Legacy Falls (with original star Mark Inscoe) rubs shoulders with the joyous power of Sylvester’s dance floor filler You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).

Shona White tells of her generation’s issue of lesbian invisibility despite the rise of gay liberation, while Allie Daniel (who can also be seen in the Barn’s Secret Society of Leading Ladies) asserts that they would not change a thing about their journey. Be yourself, and ignore the temptation to force yourself into a label, is very much the common theme here.

Real-life couple Charlotte Yorke and Natasha Agnew chat around LGBT characters as leads in a musical, before performing “Dance With You” from The Prom.

Other queer musicals are represented by Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Kinky Boots, both of which have been vibrant West End hits in the 21st century.

Other song choices are firmly inspirational – The Greatest Showman‘s “This is Me”, and the witty “Changing My Major” from Fun Home. This is a celebration of how far queer performance has come, and how stories from their experience has taken centre stage in a range of shows.

As a woman on the queer spectrum, and one whose teenage years were from the 80s into the 90s, I can certainly empathise with the notion that things have changed a great deal.

LGBTQIA+ characters are no longer tragic, camp, or bitchy (or if they are, they are on their own terms), and same-sex relationships have been largely normalised on stage and screen in certain contexts.

There’s a way to go, of course, which is why Aimee Atkinson and Millie O’Connell’s version of Little Mix’s Secret Love Song is so emotionally strong: this unofficial queer anthem has such resonance it already feels like a classic text in the musical space.

I wanted to spend longer than an hour in the Break Free space with this dynamic group of artists. If nothing else, you will be roundly entertained, with some excellent songs showcased through the piece, and thought-provoking interview segments.

Thespie are to be commended on a constant stream of professionally curated events on their platform – the Reunited series, and now these two special concerts.

You can access both on demand with prices starting from £8 – go here to book either show or others from the list of livestreams available.

LouReviews received complimentary access to review The Road to Prominence.

Read my reviews of other shows on Thespie.

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from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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