By Ian Rigg
Some nights you stay up cashing in your bad luck, some nights you dazzle smitten audiences with footstomping entertainment.
Make no mistake: there is more to the tour of The Choir of Man than its “Celtic Thunder meets Pitch Perfect with Bachelor contestants” premise.
Producers Nic Doodson and Andrew Kay brew up a raucous and ultimately revelatory romp through the window of a classic pub. One of the last of its waning kind, it’s where nine regulars and companions from Ireland, Scotland and England come together night after night, form a choir, and vow to sing together until last call finally comes and the tabs are closed forever.
Under Doodson’s lighthearted direction, it’s rowdy, it’s lowbrow sophomoric, and feel-good entertaining, until it reveals its true heart as something much more. Because in this pub, with your best friends, you never know the next time you’ll see someone. Better to sing ’til the rafters give out, just in case it’s the last time.
Furnished with the quirks and rustic touches of a proper pub populated by millennial men, Oli Townsend designs the ideal arena: which even allows for patrons to go up onstage before the curtain, have a pint, and chat and take pictures with the cast, costumed to resemble every bloke who’s ever been swiped right on Tinder.
Choreographer and movement director Freddie Huddleston is a genius. Every second of the show (and not in a distracting way) is an ever-moving picture in nine parts. Every moment, from incredible tosses and catches of mops and jugglable items to table jumps to slow-mo football cheering to the thrilling conclusion of testosterone-powered transcendence, is played perfectly and timed to perfection, to the point that it all feels made up on the spot.
Music supervisor and arranger Jack Blume shepherds some stellar numbers, none perhaps more unexpectedly powerful than an acapella rendition of Sia’s Chandelier, where the show shifts from entertaining karaoke spectacle, to the truly special stroke of heartfelt magic that was always hiding underneath.
But for all the behind-the-scenes craftsmanship, it’s the stars who pour life into the work. Aidan Banyard, Andrew Bateup, Tom Brandon, Matt Cox, Connor Going, Denis Grindel, Peter Lawrence, Mark Loveday and John Sheehy are a pitch-perfect ensemble. With stirring vocals, magnificent musical ability (yeah, each of these guys is a quadruple threat who plays at least one instrument, if not three or four) and peerlessly electric energy that only ratchets up through a mad dash 90 minutes, these boys put on one helluva show. As good of performers as they are, it’s clear the friendship onstage is not a manufactured camaraderie: it’s a joy to watch this band of brothers give it their all, down to the last drop, and still find more in the tank to share.
Cox is a truly tremendous tap-dancer, and knows his way around a melodica for good measure.
Going makes Arthur Rubinstein look like a hack, the way he gleefully tickles the keys. He has a tremendous joy about him too on top of his deft voice: wait until the end for a very Scottish surprise that further speaks to the depths of this man’s sheer talent.
Bateup, playing the “Pub Bore,” is perhaps deliberately underutilized, but has a classically trained loveliness and proves an integral backbone part-singer and deft percussionist that the show couldn’t shine without.
Lawrence plays “Beast,” and that is apt: he shreds a guitar with the utmost skill, and is the show’s load-bearing unit.
Sheehy makes Adele all his own. It’s easy to see why he’s been with Choir of Man from the beginning.
Loveday is a powerhouse: it takes a confident, talented man indeed to tackle Freddie Mercury and gyrate with a mop, and make it effortlessly cool.
Muscular Brandon doesn’t get his big moment until towards the end of the show, but clearly they saved one of the big guns for last: his vocal chords are impressively the strongest thing about him.
Banyard is this show’s Swiss Army knife. From piano to guitar and more, his heartfelt harlequin-esque energy brings a special element (and the funniest rendition of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” you’ll ever hear in the pub urinal)
And Grindel, the charming narrator, is the heart of the show. Piano player, accordion slayer, and heartthrob vocal talent, his greatest gift of all is words. He peerlessly delivers Ben Norris’ sentimental monologues, the themes of which, in the hands of a lesser writer or actor, could skew saccharine sitcom ending, but are instead each casually profound.
For that’s the genius of The Choir of Man: the reason it succeeds is not in the flash, but in the substance. Not in the hilarity, but in the heart. Like all the best nights out with people you love, The Choir of Man ignites an unexpected spontaneity, and reminds you what’s great about being alive. The only difference: the former is something you’ll never remember, whereas this is a night you’ll never forget.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Choir of Man” through March 17 at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Brian Wright.