“Raise your hopeful voice”
There should be a study into the tragic condition that afflicts so many musical theatre performers when a camera comes into view – the outstretched hand has struck down as talented a star as Imelda Staunton and John Owen-Jones has been similarly affected as evidenced by the cover of his new CD Rise. The tracklisting of this album, his third, does show some signs of trying to break free from this #stagey curse though, and with some surprising results.
None more so than the opening track, a rendition of the Eurovision Song Contest-winning song ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ (does the small print specify that this song has to be sung with a beard?!) that somehow manages to bring more drama than Conchita Wurst and go all out on the Bond theme theatrics, whilst still bringing so much feeling to the lyrics. The interesting arrangement is echoed later on in an inspired take on ‘Motherless Children’ which unexpectedly reinvigorates this spiritual.
The presence of a duet partner also elevates the quality significantly. The tempo of Wicked’s ‘For Good’ might be a tad too quick but the vocal pairing with Ruthie Henshall is a luscious delight and Madalena Alberto helps Owen-Jones to justify every single second of the extended version of ‘Falling Slowly’ from Once, with a gorgeous restraint that captures the spirit of the show perfectly. Similarly, solo songs like Scott Alan’s hugely personal ‘Kiss the Air’ and ‘You Are So Beautiful’ – made famous by Joe Cocker – have a spine-tingling affecting simplicity.
Less successful for me were the modern takes on hymns ‘Bread of Heaven’ and ‘How Great Thou Art’, both straining a little too hard to be different for my liking, though truth be told I’m not really a fan of either anyway. And though his lovely version of ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ has a bonus surprise contained within, it would have been nice to see him tackle more contemporary musical theatre writing as on his first album, fans of Les Mis and Phantom get two songs each here.
That said, the Welsh language songs, included here as bonus tracks, of ‘Anthem Fawr y Nos’ (‘The Music of the Night’) and ‘Adre’n Ôl’ (‘Bring Him Home’) are just spectacular, reining in the vocal bombast and acting as a final reminder, as if it were needed, of the subtle interpretative side to this most talented of singers.