Showtunes ahoy! The fourth member of Girls Aloud to step bravely forward from the ranks of the group and put their stamp on a solo record, Kimberley Walsh’s diversion into the realm of West End classics ends up offering its own brand of hook-laden joy, quite apart from the imminent reunion tour that will see the five-piece touring the UK with their hit-heavy back catalogue. And while the saccharine refrains present here certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, for the most part, Walsh treats the tracks with a respect belying her evident love of the stage. For those that have always said Walsh’s voice was more suited to musicals than pop, Centre Stage affirms that admirably, and she largely feels in her element here.
For starters, there’s the sweeping arrangements of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra behind every track, affording the songs the depth and richness of sound they deserve. Throughout, the production – courtesy of powerhouse Swedish duo Per Magnusson and David Kreuger – remains utterly sumptuous. Every song bristles with gorgeous instrumental flourishes that feel properly arranged, deliciously organic; brimming with the warmth of a cup of cocoa nestled between the hands on a cold day.
Responsible for pretty much every massive pop ballad you’d care to name from the past couple of decades – Westlife’s My Love and Leona Lewis’ Footprints in the Sand chief among them – the Magnusson/Kreuger combo delivers the scale and heart-tugging emotion necessary for a project of this degree. We’d even go as far to say that their lavish, glossed-up orchestrations become as much a star of the album as Kimberley herself. From moments of hope to moments of sadness, grandiose washes of strings and delicately poised piano wring out every last drop of emotional nuance, Walsh’s voice lingering amongst them like sweet perfume.
Two of the finer moments come in the form of the couplet of original tracks present here; Dreams Can Learn To Fly and You First Loved Me. Indeed, it’s testament to their quality that if you weren’t aware they were original material, you’d probably mistake them for further musical cover versions. Both shine with the same wonderstruck, wide-eyed radiance as the rest of the album; the former full of optimism and glowing ambition; “I’m not gravity bound / here where imagination makes and break the rules / heroes and fools can come alive”. Meanwhile, the latter plays out as a trembling, bittersweet ode ready-made to soundtrack some Hollywood rom-com.
Centre Stage certainly isn’t without its low points; Memory (from Cats) feels too sparse, too sleepy, whilst a procedural cover of Glen Hansard’s Falling Slowly drafts in Ronan Keating for suitable measures of Irish charm but blows by with little fanfare. With the Oscar-winning triumph of the original hanging heavy over it, Walsh’s cover feels like an uncharacteristically sombre moment for the album, lacking the jazz-hands vigour of the rest of the record. Likewise, a country-tinged incarnation of West Side Story’s Somewhere is pretty hit and miss; the choruses tenderly meaningful, yet undermined by verses that come on a touch too jaunty.
Halfway through, Wicked’s Defying Gravity offers a much-needed up-tempo moment, glistening with twinkling piano chords and colossal percussion – and is then neatly juxtaposed with Miss Saigon’s I Still Believe – all darkly haunting promises of moonlit hours. It’s left to Hushabye Mountain (from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) to offer the real late-album treat though, all meandering violin and wind-caressed flute; conjuring up images of an England long-forgotten, an idyll surviving only in dream, and the slowly-yellowing pages of a treasured children’s novel.
There’s a nice sense of unison to Centre Stage – arriving as it does hot off Kimberley’s stellar run on Strictly Come Dancing and in the midst of the UK’s current bout of musical-mania (the soundtrack to the Les Misérables movie adaption sitting pretty as the year’s bestselling album at time of writing). And whilst we’re sure many Girls Aloud aficionados and pop fanatics would have preferred Kimberley’s debut solo effort to have been a jam-packed compendium of club-bangers, the truth is, Centre Stage exists as a far, far more personal effort than any quickly hashed out pop work-out ever could have.
Just as band-mate Nicola Roberts’ solo LP Cinderella’s Eyes excelled through its marrying of fairytale virtues and Hoxton-primed electro-chic, Centre Stage plays through its own storybook of wide-eyed dreams; youthful flights of fancy now given voice in a record that manages to feel impressively adult. To be fair, a great deal of the album owes itself to the majesty of Magnusson and Kreuger’s production values – and there will always be those that turn their noses up at a showbiz ‘name’ putting their own spin on hallowed classics like these; but for what it’s worth, Centre Stage deftly escapes the realms of cheap opportunism and Michael Buble-esque gran-pleasing to stand as an accomplished work in its own right.