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Review: Cilla the Musical at Liverpool Empire ****

When Bill Kenwright decided to cast the central role in Cilla the Musical through open calls, he had no idea who would walk through the door.

Luckily for Bill, co-director Bob Tomson and producer Robert Willis, one of the 2,000 actresses and singers who did happened to be Kara Lily Hayworth.

The girl from Buckinghamshire, who once determinedly told Cilla Black she was going to be an actress, takes the role on the page and brings it to life in glorious red-headed Technicolor on stage here at the Empire where the new musical opened this week.

From typist by day to nervous wannabe singer by night beginnings to steely single-minded rise to stardom, she absolutely shines.

Despite not being a native Scouser, she’s nailed those distinctive Cilla tones, and delivers Black’s numbers in a jaw-droppingly powerful voice – Anyone Who Had a Heart and You’re My World are blistering triumphs, but also has the capacity to rein it in to imbue other songs with heartfelt emotion. Songs like Alfie and Liverpool Lullaby.

Cilla the Musical - photos by Matt Martin

This isn’t just a Cilla tribute concert however. The musical (or perhaps we should call it play with songs) has got a proper narrative, with a solid story arc, where the song lyrics don’t necessarily drive the plot. And, of course, it’s a true story to boot.

At the heart of writer Jeff Pope’s script, based on his TV mini-series, is the love story between Priscilla White and the smitten and ever-faithful Bobby (Carl Au in a platinum wig) who supports her through thick, thin and a cruel diva-ish outburst that crushes his own ambitions.

The show is packed with live music, mostly played chest-thumpingly loud on stage by a succession of Merseybeat bands like The Big Three, Gerry and the Pacemakers and some lads called The Beatles. Whatever happened to them eh?

Cilla the Musical - photo by Matt Martin

Pope’s script has a lively streak of Scouse humour running through it, from the dialogue between Cilla and her bezzies Pat (the real Pat was at press night) and Pauline, the laconic asides of John Lennon (Michael Hawkins) and the delightfully funny pairing of Paul Broughton and Pauline Fleming as Cilla’s parents.

There’s also pathos, and sadness, both the evident loneliness and otherliness of Brian Epstein (Andrew Lancel playing the NEMS entrepreneur for a third time on stage), and the fragmentation of Bobby’s family because of religion.

The tagline on the poster is a musical for anyone who had a heart, and you’d have to be stony-hearted indeed not to really enjoy this show.

Being so new to the stage however, there are still some things that need attention.

Jeff Pope, Kara Lily Hayworth, Andrew Lancel and Cilla's son Robert Willis at the Empire

Parts of the dialogue, particularly in the early Liverpool club scenes, feel decidedly clunky.

And at three hours, Cilla is simply too long. Which just tightening up the current delivery won’t necessarily address.

It could easily lose several songs without having any impact on the central plot – including You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away and its reprise (we get that Brian was gay and was attracted to rough trade without it) and the You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling duet between Cilla and Bobby.

That would then give the big hits a chance to really take centre stage and sparkle.

Cilla runs until September 16. Book tickets HERE.

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