Theatre Review: Stand By Me, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

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Image Source: Olympia Theatre

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Musical
Date: February 4 2017
Location: Empire Theatre, Liverpool

The Drifters burst onto the American music scene in the 1950s and, over time, the group (initially led by Ben E King, who would later go solo) would be responsible for some of the most memorable songs of the 20th century, whilst also introducing both the American and worldwide audiences to their style of music at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was ongoing. The group would have several incarnations due to tragic passings of original members and the addition of a new generation of performers, whilst also enjoying ups and downs in regards to chart positions and international tours, and there are still representatives of the Drifters performing today. Their heyday was the mid-20th century, though, and that peak period forms the basis for this show, Stand By Me.

Stand By Me chronologically runs us through the history of The Drifters and the careers of those involved at various points, such as the aforementioned Ben E. King; as the title of the production implies, the opening song happens to be King’s most famous number, Stand By Me. From there, via the help of a narrator, we’re guided through the formation of the group, their signing with Atlantic Records, the group’s early success, the unexpected and untimely deaths of Rudy Lewis and Clyde McPhatter, the changing line-ups, the group’s resurgence and international expansion, the later reunions, their Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 1988, the modern-day touring of the UK by newer versions of the band and the increasing influence and authority of African-Americans on popular culture and politics, not least the election of Barack Obama as US President in 2008.

Performing the hits are the very talented combination of Michael Williams, Ryan King, Jerome Bucknor (all of whom are currently members of the classical pop group Othello), Duriel Daley, Danniel Betton and Davina Thomas, along with a strong backing group of musicians led by Joe Archer on guitar and, in particular, Toby Stewart, who does a superb job bringing some of the classic Drifters tunes to light on the saxophone.

Speaking of those songs: most of the big Drifters hits that a longtime fan of the group would be expecting are performed. Along with Stand By Me (a Ben E King number, as stated), we’re treated to their first hit Money Honey, Someday (You’ll Want Me To Want You), Drip Drop, There Goes My Baby, Save The Last Dance For Me, Up On The Roof, Rat Race, I’ll Take You Home, Come On Over To My Place, I’ll Take You Where The Music’s Playing and arguably the two most famous Drifters songs of all, Saturday Night At The Movies and Under The Boardwalk.

The only notable omission from the soundtrack is I’ve Got Sand In My Shoes, although every other major Drifters hit is included, along with some non-Drifters songs like the Beach Boys hit Good Vibrations. Other things I noticed were that the strobe lighting changes would occasionally be overwhelming to the vision of the audience, and that there were several moments where one could not hear the narrator (whose storytelling would be accompanied by images and text on the big screen) due to the volume of the background music in between tracks. However, the negatives are almost not worth mentioning because of how good the rest of the show is – and it is of a very high standard. Certainly, the older generation will most appreciate this performance, since they are most likely to have the fondest memories of The Drifters when they were in their pomp.

Summing this up, if you were or are a major fan of The Drifters, or even classical music in general, you should love Stand By Me.

Overall Rating: 9/10 – Outstanding



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