REVIEW: Save The Last Dance For Me - Sunderland Empire, until May 14

Lola Saunders and other member of the cast of Save The Last Dance For Me

Lola Saunders and other member of the cast of Save The Last Dance For Me

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I don't remember much about the summer of 1963 - I was only six months old!

It was six years before man landed on the moon, The Beatles were just at the start of their glorious reign.and rock 'n' roll classics were being churned out every week.

Elizabeth Carter (Marie) and Jason Denton (Curtis) in Save The Last Dance For Me.

Elizabeth Carter (Marie) and Jason Denton (Curtis) in Save The Last Dance For Me.

Save The Last Dance For Me takes its inspiration from the music of the time as two innocent teenage sisters set out from their Luton home in mid-'63, heading for the seaside at Lowestoft and their first holiday away from their parents. They are more cream-of-tomato-soup girls than experienced in the ways of the world, but they meet a young American who invites them to a dance at the local US Air Force base. From there relationships unravel, blossom and get tied in knots.

One of the enduring partnerships of the '60s hits factory was Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, who penned some of the most memorable numbers, including A Teenager in Love; Sweets for My Sweet, Please Mr Postman, Viva Las Vegas, Can’t Get Used to Losing You, His Latest Flame and the title track of this show, Save the Last Dance For Me.

And so Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran (of Goodnight Sweetheart and Birds of a Feather fame) have based their musical on the duo's prolific work. It follows the success of Dreamboats and Petticoats, from the same writing and production team.

The UK tour production arrives at the Sunderland Empire with the names of its two main stars - Lola Saunders, a finalist on ITV's The X Factor in 2014, and Antony Costa, from noughties boy-band Blue - lighting the way.

Lola Saunders (Jennifer) and Elizabeth Carter (Marie).

Lola Saunders (Jennifer) and Elizabeth Carter (Marie).

And it will probably be remembered for former North East fishmonger Lola's big-stage debut - it was an amazing transformation and she mastered the musical arts brilliantly considering her lack of experience. Her acting, dancing and powerful singing as one of the sisters, Jennifer, were a dream. And she had to do the whole part in a Cockney accent, which she managed and maintained throughout.

Her name is Lola - she IS a show girl! I'm already looking forward to her next role.

Antony Costa played his part, too, with an assured, confident performance as American military man, Milton. His smooth voice and energy held the piece together. His undoubted pedigree as part of a pop group suited the part perfectly. He was able to get everyone on their feet for a final, hand-clapping fling.

And as a veteran of several musicals, including Blood Brothers in the West End and Boogie Nights, his acting skills are also considerable.

Antony Costa (Milton)

Antony Costa (Milton)

But, for me, it was the entire talented cast who made it a special night. Elizabeth Carter played Jennifer's sister Marie and her beautiful voice shone from start to finish. Her renditions of This Magic Moment and Suspicion were simply magical.

Alongside her, in the part of Curtis, Jason Denton's soulful tones resulted in one of the best moments as he and Sackie Osakonor (Rufus) produced a moving version of Lonely Avenue.

Alan Howell added a comic touch in the role of Carlo, a Wolverhampton ice-cream salesman. He also had a classic voice.

The band was absolutely key to the show, literally taking centre stage and embracing acting parts as well as playing instruments and singing.

A vibrant dance sequence in Save The Last Dance For Me.

A vibrant dance sequence in Save The Last Dance For Me.

Having said that, I adored the a cappella interpretations of Sweets For My Sweet and later, Hushabye - the harmonies within the entire company were superb.

I wouldn't describe Save The Last Dance as the best piece of theatre ever written - it is the ultimate jukebox musical in which a string of hits have been stitched together with a paper-thin plot that meanders to suit the lyrics of the otherwise unconnected songs. It was, at times, convoluted but there was certainly a palpable feel-good factor after the rousing finale - a medley of the big numbers, culminating in Way Down Yonder in New Orleans. What an uplifting way to finish.

Sunderland audiences love to sing along and they were given plenty of opportunity. I would guess they're probably still singing now!

Save The Last Dance For Me is on at the Empire until Saturday at 7.30pm, with 2.30pm matinees on Wednesday and Saturday.. Book tickets online or call the ticket centre on 0844 871 3022.

The fantastic band

The fantastic band