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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Annabel Nugent

Nightmare Before Christmas in concert, review: Danny Elfman and Phoebe Bridgers join for a spectacularly spooky evening

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What’s this? What’s this? A screening of a Halloween movie at Christmas? While some may believe this live production of Tim Burton’s 1993 musical is three months too late, this evening’s performance proves once and for all that Nightmare Before Christmas is a joyous, raucous and, above all, festive flick. Never mind the beasts and bogeymen.

Tonight, famed composer Danny Elfman brings the morbid fairy tale to life, summoning its spirit and spooky ditties at the OVO Wembley Arena in London where fans, some rocking blue body paint à la Sally, have gathered. Elfman has help. He is joined by original voice cast members Randy Crenshaw, Greg Proops, and the formidable Ken Page as Oogie Boogie, as well as 50-odd musicians courtesy of the BBC Concert Orchestra led by John Mauceri. New to the line-up is Phoebe Bridgers. The 28-year-old Grammy award-winner steps into the shoes of Catherine O’Hara to sing the part of romantic rag doll Sally. Last year, Billie Eilish did the honours alongside Elfman in Los Angeles.

The mood is set with a montage of Burton’s early illustrations for the film, accompanied by an orchestral medley of its most loved musical moments. It’s surprisingly emotional, a homage to the craft behind the magic. The movie is, as always, wonderful. Seeing Burton’s delightfully demented creations – Corpse Mom and Big Witch – on the big screen does not get old. All of them, however, even Clown with the Tear Away Face, are surpassed by Elfman who strides onto the stage sporting a shock of red hair and a pin-stripe suit in a sartorial nod to his depressed hero Jack Skellington.

There is no clearer connection, though, than his voice as it slithers across the opening chords of “Jack’s Lament”. It’s uncanny how familiar Elfman sounds. On high-energy songs such as “What’s This” and “Poor Jack”, that voice is mutable, feigning menace one second and doe-eyed awe the next. While singing, Elfman is playful: he prowls and stalks, stomps and bends. He mugs mean and sticks his tongue out for the camera, himself looking like a Tim Burton illustration come to life. At almost 70 years old, Elfman, who this summer delivered a wild and wacky set at Coachella music festival, has lost none of his verve. That energy is matched by an excellent and thunderous orchestra, plus a handful of singers tasked with breathing life into the smaller but crucial musical parts.

Bridgers as Sally is a coup of casting. Since her breakout in 2017, she has become as synonymous with her spooky aesthetic as she has with the exquisitely heartbreaking music she makes; Bridgers routinely performs wearing a skeleton jumpsuit. Earlier this year, her sold-out shows at Brixton Academy revelled in cartoonish macabre: cutesy headstones as set design and fog rolling in around her ankles. In the Bridgers universe, it is Halloween all year round. She arrives on stage for “Sally’s Song”, her one solo track. The original, performed by O’Hara, is inimitable. O’Hara’s girlish nasal vocals are distinct and pinched on the lovelorn ballad. Instead, Bridgers gives Sally something all her own: a light, lithe falsetto that glides over the lyrics like a passing ghost.

The loudest cheers, however, are reserved for Ken Page’s deliciously detestable antagonist. A Disney film lives and dies by its villain, and Oogie Boogie is a top-tier baddie. It may be almost 30 years since he voiced the film role, but Page does not miss a beat. The revered character actor oozes charisma as he shimmies onto the stage, wiggling his hips as he does. The jazzy track – on which Oogie Boogie taunts his captive Santa Claus, or Sandy Claws as they call him (“He’s ancient! He’s ugly!”) – is infectious, largely thanks to that booming, honeyed baritone of his. Page performs just one song, but he is the brightest highlight in a show chock full of them. As an encore of sorts, Elfman performs his own take on the track, but admits no one does it better than Page. Elfman admittedly does come close.

And by the evening’s end, hearts are warmed, and the nostalgia is palpable. A Christmas feeling if ever there was one. Sandy Claws would be proud.

‘Nightmare Before Christmas in Concert’ is on at OVO Wembley Arena on 9 and 10 December

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