Updated: Oct 7
Review by Sam Waite
Upstairs at The Other Palace was business as usual – the 80’s were nearing an end and Veronica Sawyer was being welcomed into the hottest, most mononymous clique in Ohio. But downstairs in the Studio, New Frame productions showed us a glimpse of where the future of musical theatre could lead, as composer-lyricist Khiyon Hursey – plus a handful of talented guest performers – played his first ever UK concert.
Khiyon Hursey in Concert was principally a tasting menu of the many decadent treats on among Hursey’s work. Opener “Cleaner” introduced him as more traditional in his pop-infused songwriting, his mentions only moments later that his early theatrical studies included Wicked and Next to Normal came as no surprise. However, the specifics of his upbringing and experiences become more apparent in his work the more of it the audience was exposed to – as did the experiences of his collaborators, with Cheeyang Ng joining him early on to lend stunning vocals to a pair of co-writes for a collaborative work in progress titled Eastbound, inspired by Ng’s feelings surrounding their relationship with their background and their sexual and gender identities.
Between songs came the inevitable banter, with Hursey walking the crowd through his career thus far, and what is next to come. Adding to the impact of this young, gay, and black success story was Joseph Atkins on keys, providing underscoring that turned the event into a one-man show of sorts, giving extra emotional weight to the anecdotes. A born storyteller, Hursey keeps a good pace despite the relaxed, intimate tone he established early on. His dramatic entrance, re-taking the stage after singing amongst the crowd following the interval, showed his willingness to experiment with structure and take risks – as did his atmospheric reworking of Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination.”
Julian Hornik, another American writer, duetted with Hursey on a handful of songs from their tentatively-titled project, Untitled Gay Play with Music. Neither is usually the one in the spotlight, but their strong voices and easy chemistry made it easy to follow the love story they had adapted. Hornik, also providing keys and guitar for certain numbers, has a powerful belt and both writers imbued their songs with genuine passion and urgency, as their characters fell in love and lust with one another.
These collaborative efforts are promising at their weakest and immaculate at their best, genuinely inspired lyrical and musical choices set against the familiar, pop-oriented approaches of contemporary musical theatre. Khiyon Hursey, as well as his collaborators, do not waste their words – repetition has a clear and impactful reason to happen, and metaphors are easy both to follow and relate to. His solo work, leaning on musical influences outside of theatre and emboldened by his time as both a fan of and music assistant on Hamilton, melds confident and characterful flow with emotive, propulsive storytelling.
Hip hop’s influence on his life and work became apparent early on, when recent Angelica Schuyler Allyson Ava-Brown accompanied him on a medley of Hamilton songs – one of the evening’s only non-original numbers. Both brought their own rhythms and phrasing to the much-loved lyrics, making them entirely their own versions while still maintaining the integrity of the work. In particular, Hursey made a strong case for his casting, should be divert into starting in musicals rather than writing them, as Phillip Schuyler, and for his impassioned, carefully restrained Aaron Burr.
Six’s Renée Lamb (filling in for an indisposed Danielle Steers) and & Juliet’s Lordin (Nathan Lorainey-Dineen) also gave stirring performances, with Lamb an absolute powerhouse on Olivia Spencer’s solo from Apple TV +’s Spirited (on which Hursey collaborated with Pasek and Paul) and the Wicked-inspired “Higher”, commissioned in 2020 by Stephen Schwartz himself. Lordin brings real gravitas and sharp character work to numbers from Hursey’s long-gestating musical Sean’s Story, influenced by his experiences in higher education as someone both black and queer.
Focus shifted almost entirely to Sean’s Story at the end of the performance, where Lordin assisted on politically charged, activism-influenced pieces. This was immediately followed by a moment raw intimacy, as Khiyon Hursey – alone on stage again – talked us through the creation and eventual exclusion of BLM-inspired track “Worth Risking Everything” from the show, as well as performing it's still-developing replacement, both to raucous applause that proves just how incredible this show could become. The finale, “Protecting My Energy”, made a bold statement not only in its content, but in its being performed by Hursey, Ava-Brown, Lordin, and Lamb – a small ensemble of black performers, bringing an emotional heft to a powerful sing rooted in their lives experiences.
A spectacular showcase of new and upcoming musical theatre writing, Khiyon Hursey in Concert proves the power that music and musical theatre can carry, and the importance of their capacity to portray diverse and nuanced stories. With the star and his array of guests more than able to carry an evening on their charisma alone, there was a palpable joy in hearing a wide variety of strong, infinitely listenable songs, and to experience one of the early moments of what – if there is any justice – will be a long and prosperous career.
Photos by Danny Kaan