Ramin Karimloo, London Palladium ★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Portmanteau words get a bad rap, especially in these times of Brexit, but West End and Broadway performer Ramin Karimloo has coined his own, combining his own personal loves of Broadway and bluegrass music to coin the term ‘Broadgrass’.

Karimloo has now released two iTunes EPs of his own songs, and it is on the back of this that he brought together a group of musicians to bring a country-infused evening of songs at the London Palladium.

A much more informal onstage gathering than the Palladium is used to, Karimloo’s band includes fellow West End star (and co-writer of some of his songs) Hadley Fraser. The fraternal relationship between the two friends, from their days starting out in Les Misérables, is obvious onstage, even without Karimloo talking about how he named his second son after his co-star.

And it’s when Karimloo and Fraser are messing around that the camaraderie is at its highest. From the light joshing when ‘Empty Chairs At Empty Tables’ goes awry as Fraser (a previous Marius) forgets his words to their performance of the songs the duo have co-written, it’s clear that this is a partnership which is providing creative as well as personal benefits.

But while the original material is perfectly fine, folk music played and sung well, it tends to sit uncomfortably against the musical theatre standards which elicit both the warmest appreciation from the audience and the full strength of Karimloo’s formidable vocals.

From the opening notes of ‘Anthem’ from Chess (the number which opens Karimloo’s set) to the chest-thumping splendour of ‘Till I Hear You Sing’ and ‘Music of the Night’ from both of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s two shows about The Phantom of the Opera, there is a sense of being in the presence of a giant of the genre. With the best will in the world, that is a feeling which makes Karimaloo’s original songs feel like filler material.

The all-too-brief presence of Wicked alumna Louise Dearman (duetting with Karimloo for ‘Could We Start Again Please’ from Jesus Christ Superstar) accentuates the strength of the Broadway side of Karimloo’s ‘Broadgrass’ concept.

One number where Karimloo’s desire to bring two music genres together is evident in a unique arrangement of ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’’ – but really, if you can’t bring a country music influence to bear on Oklahoma!, you might as well pack up and go home.

If anything, this Palladium show demonstrates that ‘Broadgrass’ doesn’t really work as a concept. But Karimloo clearly loves both sides of his musical taste, and his conveying of that affection to his audience is achieved perfectly.