Of Alchemistic Charms and Spells: 'Alchemy in Concert' in Katowice, Poland.
It was three years ago that the idea for 'Alchemy' was first born in the mind of Clive Nolan, the musical's author and composer. Being the prolific worker that he is, Clive did not let us wait long to hear about his rapidly developing new project which, to the astonishment of an eager audience, first saw the daylight in the form of a short story! To those who have been following the diverse career of the institution known as Clive Nolan with care, this should not come as a surprise. 'Alchemy' is, after all, not the first literary venture of the artist. However, taking into consideration the multidimensionality of the musical and its realisation, 'Alchemy' is perhaps the most versatile of his projects thus far.
After 'She' and 'Otra Vida', much work went into preparing Clive’s progressive rock followers for his next non-progressive album. The endless flow of publicity announcing the coming of 'Alchemy the Musical' left no doubts as to the nature of the album. Hence, the audience gathered at the Katowice premiere in Teatr Slaski on February 22nd, 2013, did not display much surprise at hearing the melodic harmonies of quartets and quintets, the thespian manner of the villain or indeed the soprano aria composed and performed in a classic operatic tradition. Nevertheless, the advocates of the progressive rock were not left without rocky moments and spatial crescendos of orchestral arrangements.
For the eleven singers and four instrumentalists that performed ‘Alchemy’, work on the Katowice show began months before the actual event. Learning the parts, memorizing the lyrics, vocal lines and instrumental solos, interacting with stage partners, recording the chorus, gathering props, and confectioning and adjusting costumes provided the cast and crew with a few truly hectic months. And despite the unexpected eleventh-hour line-up change, the final result proved to be worth all the effort.
The 'Alchemy' premiere in Katowice was a concert version of the musical. However, the lack of scenery and other typical theatrical elements was compensated, among other things, by a most exquisite light show for the performance designed and operated that evening by the very talented Alec Morris. The imaginative and spectacular array of sparkling colours discretely harmonized with the sounds and helped to dramatize the sequences, enhancing the misty atmosphere of the musical. The Victorian era, in which Clive's original story is based, was also conveyed through a set of costumes worn by the singers throughout the show. Top hats, elegant cloaks, lavish dresses and endless props successfully captured the decadence of 19th century England.
The concert itself was a spectacular mixture of diverse voices and performances. Clive Nolan offered a solid vocal performance in the role of professor Samuel King, who is set on a mission to save the world from his evil archenemy, Lord Jagman. It must be said that the role of King is not an easy one, especially due to the vast amount of lyrics in the solo songs alone, not to mention the complexity of the harmonies as well as acting! All in all, Professor King, dressed in a steam-punky manner, came across as a very convincing character, full of charisma, strength and personal charm. Five principal characters turned the show into the word of intrigues, love dramas and a battlefield, where higher causes were fought for: Professor Samuel King, William Gardelle, a thief he befriends (David Clifford); his mortal enemy, the evil Lord Henry Jagman (Andy Sears); and the two leading ladies in the guises of the destitute Amelia Darvas (Agnieszka Swita) and the professor’s saviour, Eva Bonaduce (Victoria Bolley) who snatches King from the jaws of certain death.
Those of the audience who were also present at Teatr Slaski for the DVD recording of 'She - the Musical' six years ago, may have remembered Agnieszka Swita in the role of the ruthless Queen Ayesha. In ‘Alchemy’ she got the chance to perform a more complex and much more sympathetic character as Amelia Darvas. As a woman driven by revenge, she still got a few ‘angry’ songs, at which she is so convincing. However, 'Alchemy' has much more to offer. The warm, heart-breaking tunes of love duets sung masterly with her stage partner, David Clifford, were probably among the most persistent tunes lingering in the head long after the lights of the show had dimmed. That evening, Agnieszka revealed many dimensions of her acting and singing persona in true style!
Victoria Bolley, who starred as Queen Ayesha in one of the Cheltenham performances of 'She' last year, and now in the role of Professor King’s protector, Eva Bonaduce, left the multinational Katowice audience in amazement with the strength of her lark-like soprano and the fury of her performance. Paired in a lot of material with Clive Nolan, she won the hearts of the listeners with ease, even though the solo aria, sung in a purely operatic manner, most probably reached far beyond the usual musical tastes of the gathered majority.
David Clifford, once more cast in the role of the heroine’s love interest, mesmerised with his voice and appearance. His mellow tenor provided a soothing contrast to the fuller tones of the personas played by Nolan and Sears, and his rendition of ‘Amelia’, a love-at-first-sight confession, was pronounced an unquestionable masterpiece. David and Agnieszka, a romantic couple for the second time, succeeded in proving the genuineness of the characters' and made us wish to see them in such configuration many more times in the future.
Andy Sears, who joined the team of Clive Nolan's musicals for the first time in ‘Alchemy’, turned out to be the perfect choice for the villainous Lord Henry Jagman. His extraordinarily suggestive voice, outstanding thespian skills and his interpretation of the role added up to a truly memorable creation. Andy’s performance, both vocally and dramatically, made the character seem real and, as Nolan intended, left the audience in a state of moral confusion - the likeable villain, the villainous gentleman… And all this conveyed in a such a masterly manner! He even received a traditional ‘boo! for the baddie’ when it was his time to take a curtain bow!
Accompanying the five principals were six more performers well known in the world of music. Tracy Hitchings, Damian Wilson and Paul Manzi – along with Nolan and Sears, the big prog names taking part – appeared in several minor roles. Paul Manzi as a ruffian mercenary raised the audience with his usual powerhouse-like Manzi energy. Damian, in the role of a sea-captain conducting a burial in the depths of the sea, shocked the audience by singing an octave lower than usual. Together with the carefully planned and executed characterisation (for the sake of the show Damian grew a dense beard!) it created an effect not to be forgotten. Tracy once more proved to be a top class performer in what was probably the most difficult song of the show, a patter song and a duet with a new to Clive artistic family, Chris Longman.
An unexpected turn of events meant that Chris Longman had to step into the role of Benjamin Greaves virtually two days before the concert. Therefore, the day of the show turned into a constant backstage rehearsal, where the trio of baddies could be found perfecting their acting together. In the end, it proved to be worth the effort and Greaves sounded and acted more than flawlessly, bringing much of himself into the show and making the gang of villains even more attractive.
Last, but not least, we have to mention two more names: Soheila Clifford as Jessamine, and Chris Lewis as the alchemist himself, Thomas Anzeray. Again, both of the actors appeared in the Cheltenham production of 'She' last year. By the time of the Katowice show, the name of Chris Lewis was already recognisable among the Nolan fans in Poland. It was Anzeray's song that was chosen for the single promoting ‘Alchemy’, and for at least two months it was frequently broadcast by numerous prog radio stations. The rocky vibe of the song together with a unique harsh sound of the voice made Chris' performance one of the most awaited moments in the musical. Lewis concluded the musical with a thunderous performance, and many lips in the auditorium were seen to be singing along to the tune of the two-hundred-year old alchemist!
Soheila, who, despite her young age has an impressive theatre history, enchanted the audience from the moment she appeared on stage. Cast in the role of a street urchin and a pickpocket, she delivered her song with the voice of an experienced performer which, judging by the enthusiastic reaction in the auditorium, was received as one of the highlights of the evening.
The band at the Katowice show consisted of four musicians, whose names are also beyond the Nolan universe: the fabulous Scott Higham on drums, the string virtuoso Mark Westwood on guitars, the piano wizard Claudio Momberg on keyboards and the rhythm master Kylan Amos on bass. After several years of participating in various projects together, the compatibility and perfect ability to cooperate and complement each other on stage is hardly surprising. This time was no exception. The mighty four delivered a lively, imaginative and professional performance, adding to it a lot of joyous musical energy. The long-lasting applause for the band members during the curtain call came as no surprise, and was well earned.
For Clive and the ‘Alchemy’ team it was a very special day, not only because of the show alone. It was also the day the first physical copies of the album were delivered. The chance to see the final result of three years of hard work in the form of a tangible CD turned the day into a full and complete celebration. Even more so when considering that the double album, which was pre-released in a limited number for the sake of the Katowice event, complete with visually stunning artwork from Graeme Bell, sold out long before the end of the show!
It was way past 1 am when the show finished. But for the most faithful audience, the evening was not over yet. To the sound of long and hearty cheers, the band and the cast took their final bow and after a while appeared in the foyer, still in full costume, ready to talk and share the experience with the fans. The master of the ceremony, Clive Nolan, was the last to appear, to the applause of both the audience and his musicians. And then, as if in the blink of a eye, it was time to go home…
However, it was not the last time that ‘Alchemy’ will be heard of. With the Cheltenham production later this year and the DVD filmed in Katowice soon to be ready for everyone to watch as a reminder of this special event, that evening at the theatre will not be forgotten easily.
As for 'Alchemy' itself, the words of highest praise and appreciation go to the author and composer of this most remarkable and outstanding masterpiece. With 'Alchemy', a work intertwining classical and modern genres, not only has Clive Nolan succeeded in fulfilling his life-time dream, but once more he has proved the versatility of his creative genius and, by rising above the confining boundaries of the genres, offered his fans a musical work of art to be admired and cherished for life.
Report by Magdalena Grabias