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Cilla the Musical review at the Liverpool Empire – ‘crowd-pleasing’

Kara Lily Hayworth in Cilla The Musical at Liverpool Empire. Photo: Matt Martin Kara Lily Hayworth in Cilla The Musical at Liverpool Empire. Photo: Matt Martin

It is just over two years since Cilla Black – the beloved 1960s pop star turned iconic television presenter and personality – died. Now she is not merely being celebrated but lovingly reincarnated in a new stage biography that re-tells her early rise to fame, from office typist to 1960s singer managed by Brian Epstein.

She had two number one hits in 1964 alone: Anyone who Had a Heart and You’re My World. Those songs close the first act and open the second act of Jeff Pope’s show. She charted five more times between 1963 and 1971. Hers was hardly a sustained pop career; Pope deals with the challenge this presents by constructing this warmly nostalgic jukebox show around those songs and other hits of the period that were either covered by her – like the great Gershwin number Summertime, or Dancing in the Streets – or drawn from the repertoire of other artists who appear here, most notably the Beatles but also the Mamas and the Papas (California Dreaming) and Gerry and the Pacemakers  (I Like It).

As with Beautiful, the musical about singer-songwriter Carole King, this is a show built not just around the songs but also the personal life of its subject, coloured by her fierce ambition and the man who loved her and eventually managed her career, Bobby Willis. The musical also serves as a portrait of the times she lived through.

Pope originally wrote this story for the 2014 TV series Cilla, in which she was heartbreakingly well played by Sheridan Smith. It’s a tough enough act to follow in Cilla’s footsteps to honour her legacy, but Smith’s performance raises the stakes even further. Kara Lily Hayworth, who was discovered by open audition where she queued for four hours to be seen, has already demonstrated a Cilla-like determination to succeed; she brings that tenacity, confidence and vocal brio to the stage. Her performance is more than a Little Voice-style impersonation – she fully inhabits the role.

The other characters in Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson’s production don’t have the stage time or the depth of script development to do more than support Cilla’s dynamic life force. Despite this Carl Au as Bobby and Andrew Lancel as Epstein bring some light and shade into Cilla’s life as they deal with ambitions and demons of their own.

Gary McCann’s handsome sets, a collection of theatre stages, TV and recording studios and domestic interiors, are contained by a series of proscenium arches cleverly differentiated by the light boxes within each that keep changing.

Scott Alder’s rousing musical direction keeps the hits coming, and even before the finale, it has the audience on its feet, joining in with the singing and dancing.

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Crowd-pleasing musical biography of a beloved superstar that does her memory proud