The second of November 1996 was a tragic day for the music business, as that was the day that Eva Cassidy, a woman whose immense talent was only exceeded by her bravery, sadly died. Luckily we still have recordings of her beautifully soulful voice and, thanks mainly to Terry Wogan and his long time producer, Paul Walters, she has now achieved the recognition that eluded her in life.
Eva’s all too short life is documented in this part concert, part dramatisation which showcases not only her supreme ability but also the incredible talent of the woman portraying her – Sarah Jane Buckley. In a performance that is a million miles away from her best known role in Hollyoaks, Buckley powers her way through most of the 27 songs in the show. Her voice is almost an exact copy of the original and in the most well known of Eva’s hits, “Songbird” and “Somewhere over the rainbow”, sends shivers up and down the spine.
The rest of the nine-strong company are equally as impressive and, as actor-musicians, they switch seamlessly from playing relatives and friends to performing as Eva’s band and backing singers. They also take secondary parts as the various people who were influential in her life.
James Gorton and Pauline Fleming take the roles of parents Hugh and Barbara Cassidy with Alexis Strum appearing as Eva’s sister Margaret and Rob McVeigh (a finalist in the television show Any Dream Will Do) as her brother Dan. All four have superb singing voices and, together with Buckley, they harmonise perfectly and their a cappella version of “Wade in the water” had the packed audience clapping along enthusiastically.
Act Two is divided neatly into two sections. The first sees Eva performing, and recording a live album, in Washington’s Blues Alley Club with larger-than-life jazz funk singer Chuck Brown – played with incredible skill, boundless energy and tons of charisma by Robert Grose. Although Eva herself was not happy with the resulting disc, she was persuaded to release it by her studio engineer and closest friend Chris Biondo (Jonathan Parker).
The second section charts the rapid decline in Eva’s health as skin cancer ravages her body, and leaves her fighting for life. It is here that, once again, Buckley shines as she displays the raw emotion and aggressive spirit that touches the audience so deeply. The final scene shows Eva arriving at a tribute concert in her honour in The Bayou Club.
She appears in her wheelchair, but stands to take the stage for what became her last ever performance. To see a woman, so near to death, sing a flawless rendition of “What a wonderful world” with such passion and conviction must have been amazing for those present at the time. For the theatre audience, now raised to its feet in a huge standing ovation, it was simply inspirational.