Cilla The Musical opened at Milton Keynes Theatre last night (Tuesday) to rapturous applause while the performance of the show's sensational leading lady Kara Lily Hayworth took me right back to the swinging sixtes.
Having been lucky enough to grow up in a decade which musically took the world by storm, it was also an era that anything coming out of Liverpool was an instant hit in the pop charts… and it was usually worth listening to!
Naturally The Beatles led the way, although close on their heels came the likes of Gerry and The Pacemakers, The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Big Three, Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas and The Fourmost... although a shy female vocalist originally named Priscilla White was shortly to join the top flight.
Following the success of ITV's 2014 BAFTA award-winning three-part mini series about the early life of Cilla Black and her portrayal by the brilliant Sheridan Smith, Jeff Pope's heart-warming tale of the flame-haired Liverpool lass and her rise to fame and fortune is brilliantly brought to life on stage.
It certainly goes well beyond the typical Jukebox-style musicals that have been played out across the country over the past couple of decades, for Cilla The Musical is a truly uplifting life story about a 25-year-old Liverpudlian typist and sometime hat-check girl who changed her name from White to Black and sang at the city's famous Cavern Club.
As a wanna-be star, Cilla was lucky to know the right people and after achieving a string of hits, she went on to become a worldwide sensation and latterly a regular television favourite on popular shows like Blind Date, The Moment of Truth and Surprise Surprise. Of course all of Cilla's famous hits – Anyone Who Had a Heart, Alfie, Something Tells Me, You’re My World and Step Inside Love – are in the show which is played out against a Merseysound backdrop featuring songs by the Fab Four plus a host of other Liverpool groups.
Kara Lily Hayworth certainly has all the right mannerisms, a strongish Liverpudlian accent and that same outstanding singing voice that Cilla possessed and she uses it to perfection in every single number. In fact she's pitch-perfect!
Often emotional and sometimes tempestuous and childlike, Cilla had that rare talent which holds an audience transfixed while the First Act high spot for me came just before the interval curtain as Kara sings Anyone Who Had A Heart with such conviction that it could just as easily have been the lady herself up there on the stage.
Andrew Lancel was truly superb as The Beatles – and latterly Cilla's – manager Brian Epstein, his own tragic story running parallel to that of Ms White's rise to fame. Epstein's secretive personal life is certainly exposed in one of the most moving scenes in the show as John Lennon (played by Michael Hawkins) tenderly sings Hey, You've Got To Hide Your Love Away, that well-crafted Beatles number leaving no-one in any doubt as to the group's manager's closet secret.
Meanwhile Alexander Patmore did a great job of playing Cilla's devoted original manager, lover and future husband Bobby Willis whose untimely death in 1999 was to leave 'Our Cilla' a grieving widow for 16 years until her own passing after a fall at her Spanish holiday home in August 2015.
Just as plenty of aspiring young singers have done in the past, Cilla's hairbrush replaced a microphone at the opening curtain, her dreams reflecting a life to come, even though her Roman Catholic parents John and Big Cilla White (Neil MacDonald and Jayne Ashley) clearly poo-pooed her heady showbiz aspirations… and they certainly didn't like the idea of her being with a Prostestant lad like Bobby!
It was after an open-mic spot at a local club singing with The Big Three that Cilla's schoolfriend Richard Starkey (aka Ringo Starr played by Bill Caple) tried to convince her to go to Hamburg with the Beatles. It was John Lennon (Hawkins) who introduced her to Brian Epstein, even though her first audition was a total disaster as her backing was played in the wrong key. And the rest as they say is history!
The dark basement of Liverpool's Cavern Club is brought convincingly to life, the staging comprising a triple archway added to some clever lighting, it all makes for the perfect backdrop for a host of well known songs from the early 1960s.
In the recording studio, Cilla would often give a single-take performance, something almost unheard of these days although composer Burt Bacharach did make her sing Alfie over and over again just because he'd travelled to Britain from the United States to hear the recording and he wanted his money's worth! But that came several months after Cilla's first really big hit, Anyone Who Had A Heart.
It was British No1 in February 1964 and was followed three months later by her second hit, the fabulous You’re My World. And the songs just kept coming with more appearances by The Beatles played by the aforementioned Caple and Hawkins along with Alex Harford in the role of George Harrison while Joe Etherington is Paul McCartney and he also plays the same left-handed violin-style Hofner base as 'Macca'. There's also a loveable Gerry Marsden (Alan Howell) plus a host of others who all play live on stage… it certainly took me right back to my teenage years.
As for writer Jeff Pope – whose Academy Award nominated film Philomena and the truly memorable television series Mrs Biggs about the aftermath of The Great Train Robbery – he really gets into Cilla's psyche and, together with the show's brilliant Scouse Director Bill 'Mr Musical' Kenwright's excellent casting and it's Executive Producer Robert Willis (Cilla's eldest of her three sons).
It's a show which left me wanting to see it all over again. In fact if had Cilla been able to see it herself, then I'm sure she'd have said: "There's a 'lorra, lorra' tears and laughter, plenty of light and shade and some really great singing by the whole cast."
Cilla The Musical plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this Saturday (3 November) at 7.30pm while there are matinees at 2.30pm today (Wednesday 31 October), tomorrow Thursday and Saturday. For tickets call the Milton Keynes Box Office on 0844 871 7652 or go online at atgtickets.com/MiltonKeynes (booking fees apply).