Cilla the Musical Review | The Lowry | Manchester
This musical adaptation of Cilla captures flashes of Cilla Blacks unique personality and energy through a snapshot of her rise in the 60’s. Despite a lengthy career covering four decades as an actress and television presenter, Cilla’s later life isn’t pulled into focus. The show, produced in part by her son Robert Willis, instead chooses to hone in on the musician she wanted to be remembered for.
During the two-and-a-half-hour production that follows Pricilla White from humble Liverpudlian beginnings, to her rebranded stardom of Cilla Black at the London Palladium, there are plenty of revealing moments about the national treasure. Her down to earth personality and the infectious spirit flow out towards the audience, thanks in most part to Pauline Fleming who captures the magnetic Cilla. While she offers heart-warming vocals, the mix of her recognisable traits, familiar songs and lesser-known personal elements offer a moving and inspiring celebration of the pop singer.
For audiences unfamiliar with Cilla’s legacy or the ITV miniseries the musical is based on, this concentrated adaptation merges a collection of memories and incredible songs. With a soundtrack that includes Cilla’s greatest hits, Anyone Who Had a Heart and Alfie, the show remains immensely entertaining without any prior knowledge required. It isn’t a jukebox musical with songs shoehorned in, as all but one of the songs are placed in a concert or recording studio. You can expect performances alongside the Beatles at the Cavern Club, The Mamas and The Papas’ on the Ed Sullivan Show and surprise, surprise performances from Cilla throughout. All the songs included serve a purpose, sitting alongside the dialogue to help draw the atmosphere of the 60’s.
Slashed, staggered staging allows scenes to switch with ease as the sets move from solid Liverpool’s rooftops and homes to Abbey Road Studios and draped backdrops. With a large cast of 20 switching out the props, the celebration of Cilla does well to offer a concert atmosphere alongside her personal story. The only trouble with Bill Kenwright’s direction and sitting in the Stalls is its limited view. During the first half of the production, which is primarily set in the Cavern Club, all the dancers surround the artists. While this does offer the casual club vibe setting, they also block your view, and it is frustrating to have to watch actor’s shimmy and twist in front of the musicians you actually want to see. But I suppose it also makes for an authentic concert experience.
Cilla’s story feels curtailed as the narrative picks up on her support systems that is split between her relationship with husband, manager and mentor Bobby Willis (played by Carl Au) and the Beatles manager Brian Epstein (played by Andrew Lancel). While this production offers an impressive array of hits and talented singers, the dramatization turns most of the cast into caricatures. With little sense of realism in the stage biography, you learn the basics behind Cilla’s rise to the top, but the show doesn’t allow enough time to let her personality shine.
Fleming rightfully steals the show with her vocals. Alongside bedazzled costumes, limited choreography and blinding spotlights there is little-added presence needed at the Lowry. With the sets primarily formed around live performances, the use of an on-stage band keeps the music electric, and the crowd animated. Offering a memorable celebration of the talented musician, Cilla the Musical leaves the melancholy of Cilla’s life on the backburner and tunes into the hits.