US-born singer Ray Shell is perhaps best known in the world of musical theatre for creating the roll of Rusty, the main protagonist in the original production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s roller-skating musical Starlight Express. Shell’s one-man show Back to Black II is a whistle-stop tour through his illustrious career featuring songs from Jesus Christ Superstar, Miss Saigon, Kinky Boots and – of course – Starlight Express. Seated in the intimate art deco-style cabaret bar The Crazy Coqs, we are also treated to a few numbers from Shell’s past when he was a backing singer for Sting’s band The Police, as well as a Lady Gaga number and, unsurprisingly, the Amy Winehouse song that inspired the title of the evening – ‘Back to Black’.
Leather trilby-wearing Shell begins the show with a gospel number entitled ‘Blessed Assurance Jesus is Mine’, his rich and soulful voice filling the room effortlessly. Between songs, this charming raconteur recounts anecdotes from his career and productions that he has worked on, from turning down a contract to perform in Hair because he promised his mother that he would complete his college education, to failing to master the high-speed skating during the final race scene in Starlight Express – revealing that instead they had to resort to using a stunt double to complete the final leg of the race. Shell never seems to be able to recall exactly what year key events happened in, referring to everybody that he has ever crossed paths with in the industry as “darling” or “baby”, and apologising repeatedly to his director Dolly for going off script. It makes for a slightly unpolished but charismatic performance.
Shell is joined on stage by Rob Barron on piano and his musical director Paul Jenkins playing electronic versions of an array of instruments, using the built-in effects on his keyboard. Some of the musical excerpts of the evening are taken from shows that are normally accompanied by a full orchestra, and although Jenkins tries his best to recreate the other instruments using the sound effects on his keyboard,the results always seem to fall short and sound unavoidably tinny. I could not help but think that a voice as accomplished and soulful as Shell’s deserves to be accompanied by a live brass band or small orchestra. Unsurprisingly the numbers such as ‘The Movie In My Mind’ from Miss Saigon, which mainly involve Barron tinkling the ivories, are ultimately more enjoyably melodic to listen to than those pieces that rely heavily on the artificially constructed sounds of the keyboard.
Towards the end of the evening Shell is joined on stage by Kim Leeson, a West End performer who has previously played Rusty’s love interest Pearl in Starlight Express. They are responsible for my personal highlight of the show: a sweet and tender duet of ‘Only You’.
Shell’s voice is a real crowd-pleaser and throughout Back to Black II he delivers many applause-worthy performances. Shell performs a multitude of works from the musical theatre canon with equal finesse as the more modern songs, such as his rendition of Lady Gaga’s ‘Paparazzi’. Whatever the song, this showman is clearly at his happiest when gracing a stage.
Back to Black II was performed at The Crazy Coqs. For details of future performances please see the Crazy Coqs website.