Collabro, with support from Phillipa Hanna & special guest Carly Paoli), The Bridgewater Hall, 30 November 2017.

Collabro arrive at the Bridgewater Hall towards the end of their third long UK tour. Since wining Britain’s Got Talent in 2014 the group have toured internationally and released three highly successful albums (Stars (2014), Act Two (2015) and Home (2017)) all of which they draw upon tonight, offering a selection of music that demonstrates their versatility in a varied and polished performance.

The support act before them is Phillipa Hanna who provides an all too short half-hour set of pop-tinged Gospel / Country and Western that prominently shows off her elastic and sweet reverb drenched vocals. With just an acoustic guitar, some sparkly boots and broaches, and her husband-percussionist Joel playing cajon and cymbals Hanna’s voice is extremely exposed on such a big stage but she fills the space consummately and superbly. The lighting is dark blue, lowered and moody which lends an intimacy to the set.

It’s easy to see how Hanna’s albums have reached the top of the Christian and Gospel albums chart through their blending of immediately attractive, ear catching hooks and licks and the uplifting, positive content of her lyrics. These are lifted from personal experience and the resultant songs have huge crossover appeal. The stage show is slick, seamless and tour-honed. Hanna plays a mix of material from her new album Come Back Fighting, 2016’s Speed of Light and 2011’s Out of the Blue. She provides some interesting back-story on herself and some of the individual songs detailing her battles with anxiety and low self-confidence in songs such as ‘Happy in my Skin’. The pitfalls and negative aspects of the auditions process in the music industry are raised before the song ‘I am Amazing’ which provides a lively, up-tempo chorus. Later she performs a stripped down, plaintive cover of ‘Always on my Mind’. Quite a few of the songs look back to Hanna’s roots and youth in Barnsley or address other personal issues such as her marriage. Her latest album was recorded in Nashville and the contrast between the two places within her music is quite captivating.

Collabro have upped their game in terms of live production values we are told by the group. Boasting an improved stage set and more elaborate lighting and visuals they supply two glossy hour long sets that boast material from well known West End and Broadway shows, a couple of swing numbers and a performance of their first original song ‘Lighthouse’. The latter is a charity single in aid of Save the Children’s Hurricane Irma Emergency Fund. Band member Michael Auger experienced the catastrophe first hand and his relating this to his shocked band mates prompted them to respond through music. Throughout each sequence the vocals are tastefully and thoughtfully split between each of the group’s members and designed to play to the strengths of their individual ranges.

Much of Collabro’s appeal lies in the combination of boy-band paired with theatre-land presentation and abbreviated medleys that blend big numbers from musical theatre. They also come across as very likeable, well-spoken and personable in some witty repartee between songs. One routine tonight involves group member Matthew Pagan wearing a turkey hat and deploying a funny accent to remind the audience to buy merchandise. None of this seems forced despite the fact they probably do a few of the same spots and crack a few of the same jokes at each concert. No doubt this adaptability contributed to their popularity and eventual win on Britain’s Got Talent. Interestingly, despite the group’s covering a number of Christmas songs over the years and this being the night before Advent, this is the only nod to anything festive, despite the extensive Christmas markets sprawling across the city.

The stage itself is divided into two tiers, an upper and lower level with stairs in between and Collabro’s band scattered around the outside and higher level. Consisting of two keyboard/synthesiser players, guitarist, bassist and a drummer, who is particularly capable, the back-up are tight, stylistically flexible and tireless. As they play, Collabro run up and down the steps or use these in a more dramatic way to emphasise the dynamics and sentiment of the songs they sing. As well as an impressive array of blazing lights the set also incorporates four large vertically rectangular video screens.

The group perform selections from The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and The Lion King. They are an enthusiastic, controlled act and it’s easy to tell that such shows are where their main musical interests lie. Each selection of songs is accompanied by visuals on the screens behind that are in-keeping with the look of the musicals, each singer appearing in turn by candlelight in the Phantom’s mask, lighting that reflects the colours of the French flag or footage that evokes the African Pride Lands. For the latter Collabro are joined by a local youth choir who are wonderful and augment the section with some dynamic and rhythmic chanting that builds a tribal atmosphere. Collabro’s reaching out to such groups at each location on their tour is part of their drive to engage more young people with musical theatre and it’s a commendable project. These sequences move fast and are cleverly put together in order to fit within the confines of each set.

Soprano Carly Paoli is Collabro’s main guest. She appears around halfway through each half, elegantly descending the stairs in different gowns. Paoli has an understated, demure, almost reserved stage presence that belies her big, powerful and confident voice. This is first showcased through her joining Collabro to sing a vigorous interpretation of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. Paoli follows this with ‘Memory of You’, a song based around James Horner’s theme from Legends of the Fall which she explains she was prompted to write as a tribute to her late grandmother. Paoli finishes with her own song ‘A Time for Mercy’ and ‘Ave Maria’, which she has performed for Pope Francis at the Rome Forum after they were chosen as part of his Jubilee Year of Mercy. As well as appearing for dignitaries such as HRH The Prince Charles & The Duchess Of Cornwall, Pope Francis and Dame Helen Mirren, Paoli has performed with illustrious singers and industry figures as Jose Carreras, Andrea Bocelli, Elaine Paige and David Foster. Despite these accomplishments she appears genuinely humbled to be at the Bridgewater and very appreciative of her Mancunian audience.

Up-tempo swing numbers, versions of ‘Rain on my Parade’ and ‘That’s Life’, provide a good, timely contrast to the show tunes and Paoli’s interludes. The lyrics fall down the big screens where Collabro’s band members also strike silhouetted poses. These tunes have obviously been placed strategically to achieve a shift in tone and it works effectively. These also allow the group to undergo two of several suit changes helping to keep the performance fresh and create a distinction between the different components of the show. The singing here is exemplary but there are some pitching issues at other points in the show. Mostly in the first half this could be down to unfamiliarity with the venue and its sound-system or maybe a little vocal tiredness due to the stresses and strains of such a long tour.

Collabro close the concert with a bang though offering a rousing arrangement of ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story and an exhilarating rendition of ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked, a green glow cast everywhere and lights projecting out onto the walls. The group explain this is a song they like to sing in appreciation of each other and their dream career. It’s an ear and eye-catching end to a suitably theatrical and divergent evening that has been niftily and seamlessly packed together.

Simon Haworth

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