Val Wiseman appears in her tribute to the Bronte family and the novels at St James Studio.
Val Wiseman, jazz singer of many years and perhaps best known for her Billie Holiday show Lady Sings the Blues has created with composer Brian Dee a musical tribute to the Brontë family.
The show opens with spoken introduction in the character of a well- to-do woman describing the effects the latest Brontë novel is having upon her and the stir they caused when first published. Immediately, there is a sense of fun and playfulness, and Wiseman’s charming child-like whisper conveying the words the Brontë sisters used extends into her singing.
She has a pleasing voice with clear diction, and her experience on stage renders her unflappable when things don’t go quite to plan, such as when she loses her place temporarily or the sound cue does not come when expected. Throughout the show she tells us of the course of each of their lives and puts the book characters in context.
The songs are modern in style and lyric, more like pop folk songs than anything period or jazz, and serve as an illustration of the story of their lives and the extreme emotions of key characters in the books. Some express the thoughts of the family member or character discussed, such as “Where are They?” from the God-fearing father Patrick, who had difficulty understanding the imaginings of his children. Others are either a commentary on them or an exhortation to keep the faith, such as “You’ve Got to Believe in Yourself” sung to the unfortunate brother Bramwell.
For me, the standout song of the night was “Mademoiselle Henri” about Charlotte’s unrequited love for her married tutor when studying in Bruxelles. Interestingly, some of the songs work well as stand-alone numbers and could serve as good material in a simple concert with a different theme altogether.
There is a CD which I was unable to hear, but I suspect that a full production recording would serve the work well, placing Wiseman’s voice into sharp relief against a darker orchestral sound, giving weight to the lyrics.
There is hope of taking the work into production on a larger scale, perhaps turning it into a musical theatre piece. Depending on the treatment envisaged, a point of development to consider could be a stronger narrative line in the songs themselves, rather than simply illustration or commentary. A new concept could also benefit from greater change of pace.
Nevertheless, this is an intriguing idea, with the potential to do well both artistically and commercially. Inevitably in a collection like this, some of the songs work better than others, but with a good creative team and cast it would be nice to see how the work develops.