But back to the music... as with many of the venues on this tour, Theatre Severn is a new one for Lee, taking its name from the river it stands alongside. With a beautiful, horseshoe auditorium on three levels, it has a feeling of intimacy that belies its size. We started, as in previous shows, with musical director Adam Dennis taking his seat at the keyboards to a ripple of applause, which stilled briefly as he played the familiar opening bars only to erupt into noisy welcome as Lee joined him on stage.
Before his second number, Lee introduced the rest of his brilliant band, announcing them one by one to the stage - Ian Whitehead on drums, Richie Blake on bass guitar, John Pearce on violin and Tommy Emmerton on lead and acoustic guitar. Next came the first flashback to Lee's past roles with Dancing Through Life, though on this occasion I think some of his dance moves owed more to the Pure Imagination of his opening number than the 'Wicked' choreography he'd mastered during the oh-so-brief rehearsal period between closing in Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and opening in the West End hit just 15 days later, in the middle of which he also welcomed his new-born daughter to the world... splitting his time between hospital - script in one hand, Betsy in the other - and theatre.
I love the way Lee has paced the opening of this show - warming his voice (and his inner rock god) through the opening numbers until he's ready to really let rip on With Or Without You - and once again, this was one of my highlights of the night. Though the mood of the song is different, the way Lee totally loses himself in it is somehow reminiscent of that prowling, intense first Any Dream Will Do version of Paint It Black (which comes later in the set). He talked afterwards of the natural caution with which he approached one of his all-time favourite songs but there is absolutely nothing cautious about the way he sings it. Anyway, enough of the song-by-song account, we'll be here until the next tour gigs if I carry on like this!
The rest of the first half played out through a mix of musical theatre classics - which always hit the audience sweet spot, offering as they do the perfect showcase for Lee's incredible ability to draw you into the very heart of the song's story, so that you live every word with him - and contemporary numbers from the last decade (or so) of his career that this tour celebrates.
Other things that have stayed with me from Shrewsbury...
- the strings, throughout, but especially this night on Hushabye Mountain - I am so very glad Lee is touring with a five-piece band this time, John Pearce's sublime playing adds such rich texture to the sound.
- the unlikely transition from Hushabye to Paint It Black - (unscheduled as it turns out - there was another song that should have slotted in between, which we returned to later) - where else would you even hear the two in the same set, let alone sitting so easily alongside each other?
- Lee talking about the Stages cruise he's headlining, with others, later this year... "going around the Med for 5 days" - he's going to get a shock when he finds out we're only sailing the English Channel to Amsterdam and back!
- Anthem - always a favourite of mine for reasons Iíve often explained, but standing out on this night because Lee introduced it by saying he would be seeing the ENO production of 'Chess' the following week, his first time seeing the full musical. I saw it, along with one of my tour buddies, a couple of days after him and can't help wondering whether seeing the full context of the song will in any way alter the way he performs it next time out... perhaps not, as I can't imagine him conveying its agony and longing any more convincingly than he does now.
On Saturday, Lytham greeted us with blue sky, sunshine, a brass band and a formation skydiving team... OK, so the last two were part of the town's St George's Day festival, but there was a definite air of celebration about the place. And it proved to be well-founded as that night's concert was, I think, the best of the tour so far. That's not to take anything away from the others, which have without exception been fabulously entertaining shows, but there was an energy in the room, both on stage and off, that lifted everything just that notch higher. Lee said afterwards that he was feeding off the energy of a great, near-capacity audience, but as members of that audience we were undoubtedly feeding in turn off the power of his performance - a perfect virtuous circle.
Lee greeted the Lowther Pavilion audience after his opening number by saying how far away we were, a combination of a bigger gap between front row and stage and his mic being set further back... he ventured further forward, cautiously at first, but once he'd determined exactly where the front of the stage was, used the extra space to good effect, though those of us lucky enough to be in the front row remained poised to catch him should he stray too far. Safety first ;-) Commenting, as he often does, that he always gets nervous before the show, he explained why: "because I care so much. It's a new room, a new audience..." - cue much laughter from the 'regulars'! Although there's no doubt whatsoever that, whether it's your first or your umpteenth visit, it's a new show every time. Which is why so many of us keep going back for more. Well, one of the reasons anyway.
I'm not going to talk about individual songs in Lytham (you can find setlists for all three gigs here) - suffice to say they all hit their mark, vocally and emotionally - but will focus instead on some of the bits in between...
- coming down from that last, endless, crystal-pure note of Bring Him Home, saying how he'd love to play Jean Valjean one day... a big beard, bit of muscle. That led him into memories of being in the gym five times a week, protein shakes, trainer and the like to stay in loincloth shape... "no choice really, unless you want chubby Joseph!"
- introducing Why God Why and recalling the night he was on for Chris when Boublil and Schönberg were in town to see the show. Having the writers of 'Miss Saigon' AND 'Les Misérables' say they liked his Chris (though possibly not quite in the accent Lee deployed as he told the story!) blew his young, 20-something mind... and I'm guessing it still would. One of the things I find most appealing about Lee is that his very real appreciation of everything the industry gives him shows no sign of diminishing as his career advances.
- making my heart ache with what might have been as he recounted the choice he had to make between his first TV role - Lofty in Casualty - and the possibility of the lead in the new West End production of 'Miss Saigon' which later transferred to Broadway. Right choice I think, and my bank manager agrees, but oh how I'd love to have seen him in that role...
- reflecting on Leave Right Now and how he's become good friends with one of Will Young's songwriters who he worked with while signed to Universal. I'm very happy to hear how much he enjoys the process and that he'd like to write more in the future... when there's time!
- thanking us for coming back for part two... checking we're still enjoying the show, saying he'd keep asking because it was so important to him that we were.
- talking about the meaning of Hushabye Mountain, a song about Caractacus moving forward, deciding it's time for him to find happiness and hoping he'll find someone... "which I can relate to myself actually" - dust in my eye before he'd sung a note!
- turning the set list over for part two a couple of songs in... "we don't want part one again, do we" - well, I wouldn't say no!
- introducing Blackbird... "it's about not giving up really, which I think is something we should all remember".
- last song... "this song will be on my tombstone, hopefully great daddy, happy man and... any dream will do!"
The audience at The Spotlight was a little smaller and, being further south, perhaps a little more restrained than in Lytham, but still can have left Lee in no doubt about how much they enjoyed the set he's crafted to celebrate the ten years since he first donned that amazing technicolor dreamcoat. The response to the songs that form part of that story - to Leave Right Now and Paint It Black, to Close Every Door and the cheesy but always popular finale Any Dream Will Do when the coat makes its comeback - is fuelled by memories of votes phoned in, of sing-offs dodged, of that interminable pause before the winner was announced, of the tears and the promise of "a hell of a show"... of that ethereal descent to the stage, of the loincloth, the chains, the gold DMs (OK, maybe that's just me!). Fuelled too by a recognition of that initial achievement and the realisation that it was just the start. That so much more was to come, still is to come. And that last thought fills me with joy, and not a little anticipation!
Sorry, lost myself there for a moment ... there is certainly a special nostalgia for those early building blocks, but there are also those in the audience who know Lee only from his more recent life on Casualty and Holby, who come to see Lofty sing and are blown away by just HOW Lofty sings. And for them, it may be other songs that light the flame... whether it's Boublil or Bublé, Lloyd Webber or Legend, there's a moment when it happens.
On Sunday we had a new keyboard player, well new to this tour though many will remember Michael Riley from previous tours and Lee's fabulous 2017 Pheasantry residency - my thanks to him for sharing on Instagram this musician's-eye view of the stage (below). And while I'm at it, my thanks to the whole band for their superb playing all weekend.
There was no Q&A in Shrewsbury and I feared that maybe with Lee's voice returned to full strength, it had been laid to rest. But no... it was back in Lytham and Hoddesdon, with the usual wide range of questions, including:
- Did Chelsea win today? - "I'm a big Chelsea fan, but I don't know yet, haven't checked! I was hoping for a few more interesting questions...!"
- Highlight of the 10 years so far? - "I think doing panto at the London Palladium" Not wearing the loincloth, then? "No...!" That was my highlight [long pause for laughter] have you got it with you tonight? ... all credit to Lee for getting things back on track by returning to his Palladium panto highlight!
- What would you like to do next? - "hard question, but I think I'm already doing it" ... really enjoying Holby City, prime-time show, good storylines, getting home to my own bed every night after 15 years of touring. But it would be nice to do another big musical if one comes along...
- Have you explained to Betsy about the kissing on Holby? - "oh, about it being in character?" ... it's partly why I'm happy to play the part gay, I think it's important to show on a prime-time show, if you're in love with somebody, gay, straight, whatever... we're all human at the end of the day and if you love someone, it shouldn't matter. Amen to that.
- How did you find out you had a voice? - "I've never really thought about it too much" ... you can over think things, and the fear stops you from moving forward, I've just enjoyed it. My drama teacher cast me in Grease, then Oklahoma, I've always had fun with it. I take the work seriously, but not the business, you're not saving lives, you're entertaining people.
- If you could be in any of the current West End shows, which would it be?" - "I've got to be honest I don't know what's on at the moment!" ... I really hope one day I can play the Phantom - my friend Ben Forster's played him and he's a similar age, but I'd love to play him, if I'm lucky enough, in my forties to bring a little gravitas to the role.
- How did you get into the industry? - "You can't get an agent unless you've got work, and you can't get work unless you've got an agent... chicken and egg!" ... going on to talk about answering an ad in The Stage and getting his first job on a P&O cruise ferry crossing the Bay of Biscay, giving a hilarious demonstration of singing Can't Take My Eyes Off You while being hurled from one side of the stage to the other by the "third rockiest ocean in the world"!
- How would you feel about a musical episode of Holby? - "They did it in America with Scrubs, didn't they?" ... adding that a few people on set have talked about it, and he was off, singing about "taking blood pressure" - anyone got a rhyme for tachycardia?
See Lee's full concert and events schedule (including past appearances) at CONCERT & LIVE EVENTS.