Rodgers Revealed

Richard Rodgers

Richard Rodgers

The duo that put together Bernstein Revealed at St James Studio has reprised a former show of similar format, Rodgers Revealed, this time at North London venue JW3 Edward Seckerson and Jason Carr draw upon their vast knowledge of the scores and the stories behind them to create an intimate evening exploring the life and music of one of the most popular composers of theatre music.

Incredibly prolific, Richard Rodgers wrote more than 40 musicals and over 1,000 songs – more than Franz Schubert, and as Seckerson points out “with much smarter lyrics!”  Most of these were penned by Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, two personalities that could not have been more different.

As with Bernstein Revealed, the results of years of in-depth research are engagingly delivered by host Seckerson, and further enriched by banter with the equally knowledgeable and eloquent Carr illustrating points at the piano, and songs sung by a West End leading lady, this time by Olivier Award nominee Anna Francolini.

There is a good balance of old favourites, such as South Pacific‘s Wonderful Guy and the heart-renderingly beautiful What’s the Use of Wondrin’ from Carousel, and rarely performed jewels like the poignant Nobody’s Heart from Jupiter and The Gentleman is a Dope from Allegro, initially a flop, but is soon to receive its European premier at Southwark Playhouse.

As ever, Carr plays his arrangements superbly with both sensitivity and great virtuosity, as the occasion demands. By sharing the contexts of the songs, such as ballerina Natalia Makarova’s backflips in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, both Seckerson and Carr furnish us with an insight into these riveting instrumental solos.

Francolini sings with a wonderful Eartha Kitt style purr, captures the New York cadence beautifully in Manhattan and fairly bites on the rhymes in the lyrics. Her light delicate touch on To Keep My Love Alive, ending on a rich low note was a masterclass in delivering a comic song.

The team also indulged in an amusing moment of musical interpretation of Rodgers’ work (which Rodgers himself notoriously took great exception to – to the point of publicly berating the stars that had the temerity to do it) on Falling In Love With Love.

Serendipitously, on the night of the European Referendum, we were treated to Stephen Sondheim’s witty number This Week Americans, which features some dry observations on the behaviour of certain Europeans. Sondheim’s relationship with Rodgers was difficult, but fruitful and it was particularly interesting to hear this infrequently performed item from their collaboration Do I Hear A Waltz?

I also enjoyed the encore medley of Edelweiss, Hammerstein’s last lyric, and Carr’s excellent jazz arrangement of My Favourite Things, but the song of the evening was without question Francolini’s extraordinary rendition of Bewitched from Pal Joey.  Tortured, fascinated and potently attracted to a man she shouldn’t be, Francolini lets us in to the character’s internal struggle with the rights, wrongs and inevitabilities of the issue, so that the listener hears the lyrics wholly anew.

A magical evening greatly appreciated by the audience.

 

Fiona-Jane Weston

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Fiona Coffey: A Touch of Mrs Robinson

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Fiona Coffey as Mrs Robinson. Photo Zoe White

 

A Touch of Mrs Robinson is Fiona Coffey’s first attempt at cabaret, and she presents a very interesting idea. Mrs Robinson is a character from The Graduate, a novel written by Charles Webb in 1963, and made into a film directed by Mike Nicolls in 1967 featuring the great Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson. Set in a rich suburb in California, The Graduate tells the story of Benjamin Braddock, aged 21, returning from college unsure of his future, and is seduced by Mrs Robinson, an older woman and the wife of his father’s business partner.

Fascinated by the foxy, predatory, rule-breaking Mrs Robinson, Coffey narrates her relationship with and thoughts about the character, and features songs to illustrate points along the way.

Coffey makes a stylish entrance singing a medley of Cool to Be Cool and Peel Me a Grape . Well costumed, she has a good presence about her. There are times when I feel she could ‘inhabit’ the character more deeply in terms of acting, but there is a nice air of hauteur, especially in her treatment of Musical Director Michael Roulston, with the silent expectation that he will pick up her leopard print coat from the floor .

Harold Sanditen has done a good job of directing this show. It is well structured in terms of narrative arc, has good placement of songs, and he makes full use of Roulston’s comic talents as well as his renowned musical ability. I particularly enjoyed Roulston’s portrayal of the hapless, conservative Mr Robinson, maintaining the casual expectation that she will deal with his coat as he hands it to her.

The excellent 3-piece band comprises Henry Gilbert on bass and Jonathan Kitching on drums, as well as Roulston at the piano. Playing Roulston’s superb arrangements, they occasionally join in the vocals, and contribute this way to some of the stand-out songs for the evening, including a great doo-wop version of Lucky Lips.

Vocally, Coffey’s best numbers are when she sings simply and uses a more legitimate singing sound. The stories and pathos come through well in Such Pretty People and Step Inside Love, which she makes her own.

There is much to recommend this show. It is a great concept, combining not only an unusual idea of creating a back narrative to an iconic fictional character, but a wry and amusing look at women’s history during the 1950’s and ‘60’s and the appeal this woman still has today.

There are fun devices for audience interaction too, with a competition to write the best Mrs Robinson seduction line, together with her plausible explanation as to why she would want her target to carry out certain outrageous tasks. There are sometimes contests on dressing like the character.

To take the show to its next level artistically, a suggestion would be to work on a more conversational style of patter, and to develop the different colours in her singing voice. Coffey has good pipes, and understands her character well. Better technique would enhance these qualities adding greater effect to her delivery.

These reservations aside, this is an entertaining piece and a very creditable first attempt at a notoriously tricky genre. The show tours occasionally, and I wish Coffey well with the future of it.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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Edward Seckerson: Bernstein Revealed

Bernstein-Slider

Just one year before Leonard Bernstein’s death in 1990, Edward Seckerson was presented with an extraordinary chance to interview his idol. It transpired that Seckerson’s editor chose the young enthusiast over the heads of more senior and experienced critics.

On the day of the interview itself, things did not bode well. Many of the cast of the concert had flu, Bernstein himself was feeling under the weather and told the orchestra he was in a foul mood. He introduced himself to Seckerson by declaring he had been told to do this interview “on pain of death”.

But, Seckerson won him over by telling him he wanted to converse about Bernstein as a composer, not as a classical conductor. This altered the atmosphere considerably and the two were able to bond.

Seckerson’s admiration for this great composer has never wavered, and the evening at St James Theatre was a thorough exploration of this most prolific and versatile musician and writer.

He is joined by composer, arranger and musical director Jason Carr, and together they draw upon their vast knowledge of the scores and the stories behind them.

Carr opened the evening with a wonderfully played prelude with no fewer than thirteen references to Bernstein’s work, setting the highly polished tone for the night.

The songstress for the evening is West End lead Sophie-Louise Dann, in fine form displaying her strong flexible voice, excellent movement skills and great versatility. The latter is demonstrated early in contrasting the strident 100 Ways to Lose A Man and I’m A Little Bit in Love, but particularly in the 2nd half of the show with Bernstein’s more contemporary classic style pieces such as Ain’t Got No Tears Left, Take Care of This House and a spine-tingling version of There’s A Place For Us .

Bernstein was inspired by good text, and his rarely presented musical On the Town was represented by a number of comedic songs, including I Can Cook Too, in medley with the most surprising Rabbit at Top Speed from a collection of 19th century French recipes by Emile Dumont. Bernstein set these recipes to music, just to see if a recipe could be taken word-for-word and turned into a decent song. It could, and he did.

Bernstein is best known for his musical theatre pieces, most notably West Side Story, but the evening celebrates a much wider canvass, including Mass, a theatre piece composed by him with additional text and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. It was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy as part of the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Originally, his intention was to compose a traditional Mass, but he eventually decided on a more innovative form, although much of the liturgical work is sung in Latin. Seckerson told Bernstein that he considered Mass to be his seminal work. Bernstein replied: “Seminal! Now, that’s a critic’s word! But, I’ll kiss you on the lips for it.”. Apparently, this was typical. On meeting the Pope, Bernstein was reminded that he was only meant to kiss the ring.

Much to Bernstein’s chagrin, he felt his music was not taken seriously enough by the music literati of the day. This hurt him, but he continued to “write the music I had to write”, believing passionately in the power of music to transcend social divisions, to move and draw people together.

Seckerson certainly plays his part in aiding our current appreciation of this extraordinary body of work. This is an impeccably researched, informative and very entertaining evening, performed by two of the best artists in London.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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Amanda McBroom: Up Close and Personal

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 Amanda McBroom makes a welcome return to Crazy Coqs with another of her shows Up Close and Personal. The inspiration for this latest creation came from Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, which exhorts us to keep only those possessions that bring joy, much like the philosophy of our own William Morris: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

She started on her music studio and excavated rhymes she’d forgotten writing, but re-discovered how good they were e.g. “We fell in love too soon or met too late,” from Beautiful Mistake written in 2004, and It’s Still Spring describing “skin tone and chances fleeting” in a woman who, “like fine expensive red wine is ready for tasting”, with which she opened the show.

It was in 1974 that she and Michele Brourman, her accompanist/arranger/fellow song writer first met, introduced by a record producer living in the same block of flats. McBroom wrote a Western style song Amanda and Brourman wrote the music, where Amanda is the song of the wind in the open plains. Haunting and evocative, the piece was the start of their deep friendship and fruitful collaboration. It was, in fact, Brourman who dared suggest the title Amanda. McBroom protested: “I can’t put my name in a song!” “I can”, was the reply.

Included in the show are a couple of Cole Porter numbers, ordered by McBroom’s singer husband George Ball: “For God’s sake, sing something they know!” They are Under My Skin and Just One of Those Things, both featuring excellent original piano arrangements by Brourman.

The patter between songs and personal stories are great, but it’s the poetry of McBroom’s lyrics that captivate. There are old favourites, including Wheels about the vicissitudes of life and homelessness, together with material that is as new as 3 months old.

For me, the two new pieces that particularly stand out are Brourman’s brittle and funny You’re Only Old Once, which is offered to us as a taster for Brourman’s own cabaret show on Monday 9th May, and a lovely gentle ballad London in the Rain, McBroom’s gift to us.

I have seen these two perform together many times, each time special, but this is truly a memorable evening. If you are interested in the arts of cabaret and song writing, you really must not miss this.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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My Mother Said I Never Should

My Mother Said

Charlotte Keatley’s award-winning My Mother Said I Never Should, written in 1987, has since been translated into 23 languages, is studied in schools and has become one of the most often performed plays by a woman writer. Telling the story of four generations of women in one family the piece examines themes of mothers and daughters, with all those relationships’ complexities, love, sacrifice and aspiration. This latest revival at St James Theatre is directed by Paul Robinson , and produced by Tara Finney.

The main action begins during an air-raid in World War ll with emotionally distant Doris (Maureen Lipman), a former teacher, emphasising the values of hard work and self-reliance to her young daughter, Margaret (Caroline Faber).  However, the best laid plans of mice and women go astray, and Doris later admits that mothers often do what they think best for their children at the time, only to find it was not what their offspring needed or wanted. These mistakes, each in their own way, are repeated by the following generations, and the original errors resonate and have consequences for both Margaret’s child Jackie (Katie Brayben, fresh from her award winning role of Carole King in the musical Beautiful), and her daughter Rosie (Serena Manteghi).

Their stories are told in a non-linear, fragmentary way, still unusual in theatrical form in the 1980s. The play opens with three young girls playing with fantasy and plotting to kill their Mummies. Far from sentimental, these children are sinister. The ages and maturity of the children is altered, reflecting their eventual roles in real life. Doris, the oldest adult, is now five, the youngest; Rosie is eight, while Margaret and Jackie are both nine, the eldest but the same age as each other, symbolically equal.

Their movements build to a chilling ritualistic crescendo, as though part of a witches coven, reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Signe Beckmann’s sparse minimalist set is a bare stage with televisions scattered in piles, the screens of which convey to us the dates and locations of the scenes, together with some interesting archive news shots and footage, and three carved wooden legs representing a piano, all of which adds to the general feel of stark choices and uncomfortable despair.

There are moments of comic relief, though, not least from the waspishly witty lines from Doris, a no-nonsense Northern woman with a “get on with it” attitude, delivered with assured aplomb by Lipman, and there is warmth and solidarity between the characters alongside the smouldering resentment and disenchantment.

All the cast is good. Brayben delivers a fine performance in Jackie, the first of the women to pursue a career of her choice, yet also unable to express her love and loss appropriately; Faber arguably has the most difficult role to portray with its self-sacrificing restraint, but does so with quiet dignity, and Manteghi gives an energetic depiction of the young idealistic Rosie.

Despite some (though by no means all) of the gender politics of the time of its writing having moved on, the family tensions, specifically those between women, remain timeless. Hence, the play remains relevant. This production is well worth seeing.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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Lily Atkinson: Song Collection

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It is not often one gets the call to review a genuinely young emergent cabaret artist, so it was both pleasure and a sense of curiosity that drew me to see Lily Atkinson at the newly refurbished Pheasantry. Lily is comedian Rowan Atkinson’s daughter, very recently turned 21 and is pursuing a career in soul, R and B and pop singing.

Both parents, despite being recently divorced, were in attendance to support, as was family friend Jeremy Clarkson.

An attractive young woman, Lily explains in the show that whilst her childhood was steeped in many styles of music, it was especially with soul that she fell in love, and particularly admired Aretha Franklin. Hence, her current show focuses mainly on that genre.

She moves beautifully, and has a good flexible voice which she uses well, though with a little too much emphasis on vocal fry for my taste, and has a strong stage presence. Ably accompanied by Musical Director Sam Cable and 3 piece band, she has fun singing 3 Cool Cats and other jazz and R&B classics, and pays tribute to Amy Winehouse by singing a song she revived, Mr Magic.

A standout item was a medley of Why Don’t You Do Right, with her climbing on to the piano giving a languid delivery and moving into a more raunchy I Got Trouble.

It is a well paced evening with a fairly good show structure, although her abrupt departure for the interval jarred rather. As her initial nerves settle, she is able to share a joke with the audience and enjoy some repartee. Nevertheless, I felt this is an area for her to work further on to gain more clarity and fluency. Very sensibly, Lily has sought out cabaret training from Excess All Areas.

Her greatest successes of the show, though, were when she sang her own material, some penned at the tender age of 16. Experiencing her first heartbreak led her to write What She Got, “..for 16 year olds all over crying in their bedrooms”. Far from being trite or sentimental, it touched the audience more directly than the soul numbers, not least because it was directly from the heart, and we felt we were able to get to know her a little on a more personal level.

The second half brought more such moments when her band left the stage and she performed an acoustic set with guitarist Joel sitting next to her. Once again, the connection with the audience was much more direct and satisfying. Down, her song of defiance to those who showed a lack of belief in her had us enthralled.

This is an interesting artist showing considerable promise, but she has not quite found her own voice yet. Much of the work shown tonight is derivative, admittedly from very fine artists, but with only the occasional placing of her own stamp on the material. One exception was her version of Pussy Cat Dolls Stickwitu.

At just 21, this is entirely forgivable. It is no accident that most cabaret performers come to the artform later rather than earlier in their careers. There are still a few rough edges to polish, but I look forward to seeing her development as she matures both personally and artistically, perhaps most particularly as a singer/songwriter.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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Liliane Montevecchi

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French actress, dancer and singer Liliane Montevecchi is appearing once again at The Crazy Coqs with her show telling the story of her life from her days as a Prima Ballerina to Hollywood and Broadway.

Beginning in Roland Petit’s Ballets de Paris, Montevecchi went on to a film career in Hollywood and later The Folies Bergère, though she never appeared naked.  She “had too much talent for that!”, she asserts.  But, she is perhaps best known now for her roles in Grand Hotel, for which she was nominated Best Actress in a Musical , and Tommy Tune’s Nine, garnering her Tony and Drama Desk Awards .

Now 83, Ms. Montevecchi remains as slim, feline and, truthfully, nearly as lithe as in her younger days. With enormous presence, she slinks on to the stage gesturing with hands and long fingers she employs like delicate, expressive instruments.  At one point, she does a ballet barre lifting her leg high on to the piano, and does a full port de bras (long low bow to the floor).

Although she did a dance routine with Fred Astaire (sadly cut from the film) and had fun going duck hunting with Clarke Gable, Ms. Montevecchi did not really enjoy making films, preferring the immediate contact with an audience – so, she is ideally suited to the intimacy of cabaret.

She had the privilege of knowing legendary French cabaret artists, such as Josephine Baker, Édith Piaf and Mistinguett (a cutlery thief, apparently!), and pays homage to them with a medley of their songs. The first set of the show also includes some standout material, namely the saucy I Never Do Anything Twice, a sensitively sung Les Feuilles Mortes and a rarely heard Cole Porter song Si Vous Aimez Les Poitrines.

Her deep-throated husky voice with French accent still beguiles her audience as much as her feline fascinating movement. Slithering through the audience singing Je Cherche Un Millionaire, she later invites a man to join her on stage to dance in Newfangled Tango.

Whilst her self-deprecating wit and comic timing are impeccable, I found her ballads the most mesmerising, notably Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Irma La Douce (which she played on Broadway).  Ably accompanied by Nathan Martin, musically, her medleys work well as story-telling devices, flowing seamlessly and hardly appearing to be medleys at all.

Ms. Montevecchi went on to describe the extraordinary good fortune she had to win her most recent roles on Broadway, her singular audition, and concluded the evening with Bonjour Amour from Grand Hotel and Follies Bergere from Nine.

A star not to be missed.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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