Johnny Fox

Boulevardier, scrivener and scourge of leading ladies who can’t play eight shows a week, Johnny Fox is a late convert to the separation of book from music and lyrics but after living in New York became beguiled by the idea the latter two can be enjoyed with a decent cocktail. He writes mostly about theatre, mostly in London, but is occasionally found in the back row of a chorus and has sung in Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House and on the soundtrack of a Monty Python movie.

Boys From The Posh Stuff: Bounder and Cad

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Two thoroughly nice chaps you’d safely take home to mother. Two Cambridge choral scholars and occasionally camp satirists at pains to remind you they’re heterosexual. One a bit shorter and blonder, one a bit like Robert Peston.

Let’s first accentuate the positive and say that they sing effortlessly, possibly with more technical accuracy than most contemporary comedy cabaret and they acknowledge that their success is accidental, following a series of private and corporate parties at Number 10 or Highclere Castle.

Bounder and Cad both have day jobs – Adam Drew develops film scripts, Dr Guy Hayward researches the links between music and walking gait and promotes a series of curiously Chauceresque pilgrimages around Britain.

The current act has a repertoire of a dozen songs well-delivered and ranging from the purely classical to pop and show tune, but of dubious topicality: a version of Me and My Shadow parodies the Clegg and Cameron coalition, but wouldn’t pass muster on The Now Show. Their best piece The Flour Duet is a choice contrapuntal between Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood but that cake feels staler now their BBC partnership is over, and on the very day Article 50 was triggered, the best they could come up with was a funny but two-years-ago duet between Angela Merkel and Alexis Tsipras about the Greek debt crisis.

You just know Kit and the Widow would have scrawled something more sharp and topical on their shirt cuffs an hour before the performance.

Because their humour is free from contemporary savagery, everyone says ‘oh, they’re like Flanders and Swann’ as if many can remember the piano-and-wheelchair-bound pair of gents who last performed together in 1967. But actually Tim FitzHigham and Duncan Walsh-Atkins have already mined that seam of ‘two posh blokes in dinner jackets’, for longer than Flanders and Swann did themselves.

Much as I love and respect the pioneering work of Adele Anderson and Dillie Keane with Fascinating Aida to whom Bounder and Cad also pay homage – they are also approaching the stage of their careers when they may consider whether it’s worth flogging the old Peugeot round the shires every winter to stay in a succession of Travelodges and entertain the people they’ve already entertained before.

Trying to give feedback in a positive way – their Teddy Bear’s Picnic song lampooning modern preferences for quinoa and quiche is genuinely funny, but it’s a cardinal error to repeat the same words in two choruses of a patter song, particularly when it would be fairly easy to write a fresh set.  There’s a certain shuffling on stage which looks like clumsiness but could be sorted out by a director, but the most fundamental problem is there’s too little differentiation between the onstage characters.

For a double act to succeed, even without resorting to the Music Hall convention of straight man and comic, you have to vary the personas: although as pairings coming from similar backgrounds Fry and Laurie, Armstrong and Miller, Mel and Sue, French and Saunders, even – God help us – Ant and Dec all learned this early on: one of you plays the more serious, pompous or pedantic role and the other sparks off it with the sarcasm.

Early days. If Waitrose did cabaret, this could be it: but in the harsher competitive arena of the urban comedy and cabaret circuit, we’d welcome something more pointed.

Bounder and Cad: Implicit Content, Crazy Coqs/Live at Zédel, London W1.  29 March 2017, 9pm.


Back from Broadway: Cynthia’s Comin’ Home

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There are few divas for whom you would queue an hour in the pouring rain on a cold night in January, but it was almost worth getting trench foot to witness the extraordinary, uplifting, generous and eclectic ‘comeback’ concert with which Cynthia Erivo chose to favour her loyal London mailing list.

Only circulated a week before, it was an instant sellout and even snaking down the flooding pavement the excitement was shared like we were a secret sect as customers spilling out of steamed-window Shoreditch eateries asked what we were queuing for and shrugged off our enthusiasm with a ‘never heard of her’.

But that is their loss, because not only did Ms Erivo leave London a definite musical theatre star on her way to The Color Purple on Broadway, she has returned with her brightness burnished to a dazzle, and with a trail of performances and landmark events she was visibly excited to share with this loving crowd.

Her voice has grown significantly since The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory or Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studios.  It was her 30th birthday a couple of weeks before this concert yet there are moments you look at Erivo – and this is only a compliment – and think she seems ageless. She has such mature vocals, and has already mastered so many musical genres and sings so reflectively that for a moment she might have a look of Joséphine Baker and a lifetime of experience in her phrasing.  Baker was a civil rights activist, too, and Erivo certainly doesn’t shrink from political engagement either.

Everything was introduced with an anecdote highlighting her extraordinary year – one of her most moving being singing ‘The Impossible Dream’ in a segment representing JFK at the Kennedy Centre Honors in Washington, when Aretha Franklin joined in the chorus and the Obamas were in the audience.

She is resolutely unafraid to tackle the iconic – how else could her concert include Billie Holliday’s ‘God Bless The Child’, Eva Cassidy’s remarkable 1992 arrangement of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and perhaps most daring of all, allow her to outshine Whitney in ‘I Will Always Love You’ which brought the house down. She sang a rare Etta James track, and to thunderous applause, welcomed to the stage her friend Leslie Odom Jr, star of ‘Hamilton’ for a duet from the show before introducing the wonderful ‘You Will Be Found’ – first-act closer from the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen, written by her other friends Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

She can belt, she can blast the rafters, she can improvise, but she never over-decorates: seizing the Carole King anthem ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’ she drove the words home harder than Aretha herself, but constantly pulled them back to a confidential whisper, especially on the title phrase.  She spoke, as always, to the room, but if she was privately aiming this at her partner, Aladdin’s Dean John-Wilson who she namechecked in the audience, he is truly the luckiest of men.

And so, for two hours, were we.

 

Cynthia Erivo: Hey, It’s Been Some Time: Shoreditch Town Hall 29 January 2017, 7.30pm.

 

 

 

Review: Ben Rimalower’s Patti Issues/Bad With Money, St James’ Studio

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This is a BOGOF worthy of Ben Rimalower’s beloved discount store Target: his two one-hour monologues Patti Issues and Bad With Money ran separately off Broadway – the paean of love to Ms LuPone for over a year – but in London come bolted together for the one cover charge.

His delivery is extrovert Jewish – nerdy, nebbish and steering an exact midway course between the genial self-deprecations of David Sedaris and the dangerous obsessions with all things musical theatre of Seth Rudetsky who recently platformed Ms Lupone herself in a show of prostrate adoration at the Leicester Square Theatre.

London may know and love LuPone – she created Fantine in Les Misérables here and I’m sure I’ve heard her drawl that it’s her “second home” on Graham Norton, but not as well as Rimalower. From his first exposure to her Evita, he’s been a slavish fan whose conflation of the talented and driven diva with the powerful and ruthless first lady of Argentina seems to have fuelled both his fantasies and his nightmares.

However warm and encouraging, a London audience is largely unfamiliar with Patti LuPone’s television career – ABC’s Life Goes On never aired here – and equally with Rimalower’s own CV: the 2005 musical Joy he directed off-Broadway also never crossed the pond, so it’s an uphill sell for him to get some of his anecdotes across. “That went down a storm in New York” he told the St James’ studio as it blanked another parochial reference. Maybe he needed a later, loucher and more martini-lubricated crowd, or maybe the extreme fandom of musical theatre actresses is more a New York phenomenon. I can’t imagine anyone crafting a cabaret evening from their scrapbooks of Elaine Paige.

Not even Elaine.

He’s at his very best with the parallel story, riotously told, of his father’s coming out, as a fairly flagrant gay man (“oh sure, my dad was a bottom”), and the precocity he acquired from such early exposure to all shades of romantic involvement as he shuttled between his mother’s home and those of his father’s sequential partners.

The second monologue Bad With Money is more searingly confessional, peopled with some of the same fond family characters for warmth but there’s the honesty you’d find at an AA meeting when Rimalower explains his lifelong commitment to living beyond his means, whether skimming from his mother’s purse, or dabbling with prostitution after blowing his student funding on drugs in the first weeks of term.

At first the audience laughs with him, softening up for a happy ending perhaps, but you can feel a shift towards the judgemental when he embezzles thousands from the kindest of men, producer Lonny Price who gave him his Broadway break.

That Rimalower doesn’t then swerve the story back to a humorous or benign ending is a tribute to the new-found honesty of a long-time liar, but more to his mastery as a writer and raconteur.  Facing your demons is hard, but making an audience face your demons and still go home satisfied is beyond clever.

Ben Rimalower: Patti Issues and Bad With Money, St James’s Studio, London SW1.  Friday 11 March 2016, 8pm

Beatle Juice: Barb Jungr and John McDaniel ‘Come Together’

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She’s at it again. Not content with stripping the bones and sinews of Jacques Brel, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, the ‘Silent Witness’ of the cabaret circuit Barb Jungr now forensically dissects and reconstructs the Beatles.

It has become a cliché to say that ‘she makes you hear songs as though for the first time’, but she bloody does and by removing the 60s poppy detritus from the arrangements manages to make Lennon sound like a poet and McCartney an accomplished composer.

She’s such an understated diva. Casual silky but not sparkly top, elegant but sensible trousers and shoes, and eyeballing the audience like a headmistress quelling a talkative assembly. You take in the restrained jewellery, the confidential stare, the freshly blonded page-boy bob, then it’s as if Theresa May suddenly turned out to be a groover as she snaps into the strutting rhythm of ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’.

By not introducing the numbers she teases the room, in torch, jazz or blues renditions few recognised the verses to half the songs and she surprised even when one started with its title: ‘Eleanor Rigby’ became a three-act folk drama, a stretched-out pain-soaked salute to loneliness and regret.

The first half features mostly love songs – a delicious mash of ‘And I Love Her’ ‘All My Loving’ and ‘All You Need is Love’ ramp up to a more urgent and tensile ‘Getting Better’, with its darker references to Lennon’s pre-peacenik past “I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved/Man I was mean but I’m changing my scene/And I’m doing the best that I can”.

As usual, the anecdotes are personal and confessional. Jungr hates it when critics mention age in reviews, and I promised her I wouldn’t. So let’s just say that women who now reach for the gold-coloured L’Oreal boxes on the moisturizer shelf in the supermarket, would as teenagers all have had a favourite Beatle.

Jungr had always dismissed Paul as too bland, but discovering he’d missed an important meeting at which the accreditation of songs was permanently determined as ‘Lennon/McCartney’ whoever penned them, and realizing he’d carried the fire of resentment in his belly for fifty years since he wrote so many more than John – she felt that if this were more widely known that when Heather Mills limped out of his life, he’d have been inundated with offers, including her own.

She also has wonderfully acerbic things to say about Yoko Ono, although she doesn’t (yet) quote Radio 1 DJ Andy Peebles who this week described her as ‘the woman who did for music what Wayne Sleep did for Rugby League’.

New York musical director and arranger John McDaniel is a tremendous accompanist, and gets a couple of good songs to himself including the hardest stuff: a beautifully-crafted ‘When My Guitar Gently Weeps’ without a guitar.  The show works well with his fine piano, you might ponder whether some brass or strings would support them even more – but when Jungr wields her harmonica and bends it like a tenor sax, I wouldn’t really have it any other way.

 

Come Together, Barb Jungr and John McDaniel, St James’s Studio, 27 November 2015, 8pm

 

Let Me Be Frank: Michael Feinstein at the Adelphi

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‘Wanna Sing a Show Tune’ starts Michael Feinstein, cementing a career which has stretched across thirty years of meticulous analysis and delivery of the entire catalogue of the ‘Great American Songbook’ – a songbook which, he tells his British audiences, is truly international. Although he then sings forty songs written by US composers.

In case you have been under some impervious rock sheltering from the radiation of musical theatre, Michael Feinstein is a phenomenon with unique links to the golden age of Broadway melody – a protégé of the late Ira Gershwin in whose house, as a musical secretary in his twenties and Ira’s octogenarian dotage – he served the sort of apprenticeship Sondheim did at Oscar Hammerstein’s knee, eventually inheriting the sheet music archive of the Gershwin brothers. Perhaps Sondheim is fortunate Feinstein didn’t also go down the composer-lyricist route and create rivalry – and it could have been a bitter one, Sondheim referred to Ira’s lyrics as ‘rhyming poison’ – but as he confesses, songwriting is ‘tricky’ and it’s difficult to arrange the notes any differently from how it’s been done before.

Instead he has diligently trademarked a forensic and inventive approach to the back catalogue which can deliver a seventy-year-old lyric newly minted. He has an extraordinary ability to make you hear a vintage song as though for the first time with his soft but crisp diction, carefully-controlled flexibility to adjust tempi and emphases, and a perfected fusion of vocal melody and piano when he plays.

I think he’s best as a crooner and love the tenderness he brings to romantic or regretful torch songs, but now in his late fifties he’s developed an astonishing top belt to which more and more of his arrangements ascend for a climactic finish. Even fronting a 17-piece band, led with skill and fervour by the veteran Larry Blank, he’s always on top of the sound.

He gauges his audiences with some tentative Jewish mother jokes, and a camp impersonation of the flamboyant 70’s American comedian Paul Lynde to see how ‘gay’ he should make the banter and/or how long are the memories of his audience.

It’s an interesting duality – I’ve seen Feinstein entertain a New York theatre audience like a bland bar mitzvah singer with no edge to the performance, and was afraid he’d lost the puppyish cheek which characterized his earliest work. It’s still there, but it’s carefully measured out and while cosmetically he now facially resembles Andy Williams – there’s an occasional welcome outbreak of Kenneth.

And, at last, when he sings Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford’s ‘Old Friend’ he now includes the line “and she wonders at my taste in men”. Feinstein was married – by Judge Judy – to his long-time partner Terrence Flannery in 2008.

His set ranged from familiar standards like ‘Embraceable You’ which he underscored with fifteen other Gershwin melodies, ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ and a thoughtful ‘Broadway Baby’ and he’s become more keen to play just a few bars of accompaniment before jumping up with the microphone to deliver the more freely swung numbers like ‘Such A Lot of Living To Do’ although I’m still unconvinced he’s a natural jazz groover.

The two sides of his musical personality were reflected in differing versions of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ – one slow and reflective based on the original waltz setting preferred by its composer Bart Howard and another introducing Feinstein’s most dramatic medley, a fifteen-minute barnstorming finale of music made famous by Frank Sinatra.

Feinstein is a recent but almost messianic convert to the Sinatra cause, releasing a 2008 album The Sinatra Project – but I have never heard him deliver these numbers with such power and drama, it really was the most mesmerizing piece of cabaret work: not a homage, not an impersonation, but applying his individual talents to a song set made famous by this most famous and revered of male vocalists – is a challenge few performers would find the nerve to undertake, let alone pull off with such bravura.  It was totally thrilling.

But – as Feinstein sings in another lyric – ‘Here’s to us, who’s like us? Damn few’.

Michael Feinstein sings The Great American Songbook.  Adelphi Theatre.  Sunday 26 September 2015, 7.30pm.

 

 

Review: Elio Pace: The Billy Joel Songbook: Richmond Theatre

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A shouty songbook show with a 1980s ‘Opportunity Knocks’ loser? Of hard rock? On a Sunday night? At the arse end of the District Line? What have I done to deserve this?

Even though I’m a long-time Billy Joel fan, the prospect of a soundalike gig on the wrong side of town felt like a mission. The previous night at the O2, Bette Midler kept 20,000 enthralled. At Richmond, Elio Pace had an audience of 300, but with a combined age nudging 20,000.

But even in a cherubs-and-red-velvet theatre where stadium rock meets Frank Matcham architecture, he knows how to work them. Midler told her adoring throng ‘If you feel like singing along … don’t, there’s only one diva in this room” but Pace opens with an invitation to sing when you like because he knows the Billy Joel back catalogue often contains ‘milestone’ songs people remember from weddings, or birthdays, or – increasingly given the age of this audience – memorials. He also knows how to bring an audience to its feet, and even to risk their hip joints by dancing in the aisles: sensibly this is confined to the last 20 minutes of the show, apart from a couple of dinner-lady types in Marks and Spencer separates who simply peaked too early in the second row.

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He might look more like Billy Joel’s cab driver than the Piano Man himself, and at 47 is safer in a roomy suit than ‘engineer boots, leather jacket and tight blue jeans’ but he’s every bit his equal on the keys – orchestrations are meticulous, drum fills and guitar patterns superbly tight so he really does produce the ‘Long Island sound’ time after time.

And the band. Boy, can Pace put a band together. You’d think these guys had worked as a group longer than Roger Taylor and Brian May – guitarist Neil Fairclough even served some time in Queen – and it’s a crying shame that Richmond marked the last gig for outstanding tenor sax player Luke Pinkstone, smooth and light as Stan Getz on ‘Just The Way You Are’ but full-throated and raunchy in the thrashier numbers.

It’s a strenuous gig, as much for the audience as the band since they tend to mime or move along to the familiar songs – from Movin’ Out to River of Dreams, interspersed with rarities like the Root Beer Rag, it’s all here and linked with neat and personalised anecdotes about how the songs were conceived and a nice illustration of Joel’s classical musical training when Pace plays some of the intros in the style of Beethoven or Mozart.

Vocally, it’s not always spot on, but this is an interpretation rather than impressionism. Even so, loudness doesn’t make up for imprecision and in songs like Say Goodbye To Hollywood and Allentown Pace could listen more carefully to the way Joel lingers on the notes, with a more melodic tone, and to his delicate placement of consonants not just in the ballads, but even when belting Captain Jack to Yankee Stadium.

Talking of Captain Jack, I really don’t think the gleefully gyrating dinner ladies knew it was about a heroin dealer.

In a 120-date tour over a couple of years, it’s great that Pace continues to bring Billy Joel’s music energetically alive and to places Joel won’t tour any more, and he does it with the great man’s blessing. He’s also been booked to headline with the original members of Joel’s touring band on gigs across the States.  Can’t get better endorsement than that.

 Elio Pace: The Billy Joel Songbook.  Richmond Theatre, Sunday 19 July 2015, 7.30pm

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Dead Royal, Ovalhouse

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Chris Ioan Roberts’ Dead Royal intertwines the stories of Wallis Simpson and Diana Spencer. Roberts plays these two women who never quite made it to the throne despite behaving like a petulant old queen and an empty-headed young one. We sent Johnny Fox and David Lloyd-Davies, our oldest and youngest, er, Royal Correspondents respectively, to see it.

JF: I suppose this sent you scurrying to Google? Presumably the stuff about the 1937 abdication crisis went right over your pretty blonde head like a badly-aimed pearl necklace?

DLD: My knowledge of this scandal was based entirely on the weary interludes between Colin Firth’s stammering in The King’s Speech. But Chris Ioan Roberts’ script gives enough clues without crudely reprising for the antiques in the audience who lived through it.

JF: I didn’t ‘quite’ live through it, but I wondered whether the Duchess ever did invite Diana to Paris. It’s quite a delicious idea that Wallis might warn Diana off marrying Charles.

DLD: It’s the sort of mischievous speculation Roberts weaves into the script. The Duchess’s throwaways are intelligently comic.

JF: I’m sure we’ve both had experience playing two men at the same time, but how do you think he did with two women?

DLD: Although the sense of caricature is apparent, his Diana was more disappointing at least by drag standards. If you’re playing a woman you’d shave your 5 o’clock shadow for a 7 o’clock show, right? Even Elaine Paige does that.

JF: I believe in her reflection from a glass coffee table, yes. Were you envious of Roberts’ controlled gag reflex? And what about the other stage tricks he turned?

DLD: Robin Soutar’s staging was appealingly sensuous. From misting the air with cloying perfumes to suit each character to projectile vomiting half a bottle of Gaviscon across the stage while Gone With The Wind played on the old television.

JF: I found my attention straying to GWTW occasionally; it’s a cute trick to give Wallis the voice and mannerisms of Scarlett O’Hara but I wished he’d found a persona for Diana that didn’t make her look so frumpy. She had fewer good lines too, his only real joke was about her legendary dimness – I always loved how Debrett’s listed her ‘qualifications’ as ‘O-Level Needlework, Colonel-in-Chief of the Coldstream Guards’.

DLD: As an old hag, how do you think he captured Mrs Simpson?

JF: Well, he couldn’t pull off the ‘too rich and too thin’ thing because he’s a robust Australian lad, although I liked his crouching gait and screeching imperiousness with the Spanish servants. ‘Orangina’, nice touch, I so wanted her to appear.

DLD: As with so many things after 50, I expect you found it didn’t really get going?

JF: It was a slowish burn to start with but once in full-pelt there were some great swipes at sacred cows like the Queen Mother: ‘a face like yesterday’s Eton Mess’. If she had met Diana in 1982, Wallis would have been 86. A bit more research as well as more of the sharp lines he’s so good at could make this a winner.

DLD: At least it got you out of the house, dear.

JF: And you home before your ankle tag went off.

Attritional reportage and bitching by David Lloyd-Davies

Dead Royals. By Chris Ioan Roberts. OvalHouse. 24-29 April. http://www.ovalhouse.com

The Old Broad Way: Liliane Montevecchi, Crazy Coqs

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It’s not often you get to spend the night with someone who danced with Fred Astaire, drank with Dean Martin and did who-knows-what with Elvis.

It’s been eleven years since Liliane Montevecchi played London. Then she enthralled Pizza on the Park, now it’s Crazy Coqs where French ambience seems a better match to her show Paris on the Thames. And even if old French poodles really don’t learn new tricks and the routine is unchanged, her voice sounds richer and another decade adds perspective and polish to her life and work.

Montevecchi started out as a ballerina, like Lesley Caron or Zizi Jeanmaire in pointe shoes at 9. Cutting a slender figure, she moves about the stage with agile grace and throws herself about for comic effect, groaning as she jumps up on the piano. At 82, she can still put her foot over her head which was enough for the audience to burst into spontaneous applause.

After an MGM contract she left Hollywood for the Folies Bergère then to Broadway almost by chance in the musical Nine, for which she auditioned singing a capella La Vie en Rose dragging a mink coat in a self-parodic caricature of the femme fatale. She’s still doing it, although she no longer wears mink.

Follies Bergère was a highlight of her act in 2004, but this time around the vocals seem under stress and forced. But even if a few top notes and lyrics get lost, you cannot forget you are in the presence of an experienced performer with genuine joie de vivre. She never takes herself too seriously either, cracking jokes and laughing out loud.

It’s a slightly predictable melange of French songs and classics like Cole Porter or Jacques Brel. As she opens with the number Paris Canaille, music director Nathan Martin shouts ‘I hope you all understand French, otherwise you’re going to get a headache!’ Even though the songs will be familiar to anyone who saw her before or who has her album On The Boulevard, she has the knack of making her delivery seem fresh and spontaneous.

Humour carries the show. Sondheim’s I Never Do Anything Twice is a great song from a rotten movie (The Seven Percent Solution) full of double entendres about never returning to the same lover. She milks it with the shameless fervour of Marie Antoinette in the dairy at Versailles, laden with carefully chosen pauses and knowing stares at the audience. And by the time she gets to “Yes I know that it’s…hard” the more mature “gentlemen who moisturize” in the audience were howling with laughter like they’d never sung it themselves drunk in a piano bar at three in the morning. No?  Just me, then.

She prowls the audience in Je Cherche un Millionaire – no luck in this crowd Liliane, cherie – grabs an unsuspecting member of the audience to join her on stage in New Fangled Tango – debatable whether it’s her version or Lena Horne’s that was the smouldering definitive – and tells him off when he moves.

Equally memorable are her reflective moments when you feel her connection to Paris. Irma la Douce sounds even more full of longing and regret when shorn of Shirley MacLaine’s noisy theatricals and phrased with pathos and meaning.

When she closes her first set with Cole Porter’s You Don’t Know Paree, she reflects on her age, the people she has lost and time gone by. It is a beautiful pause to contemplate the end of an era and a style of performing, and appreciate a master artiste from a past generation. To be full of life and energy at 82 is something to admire when many find their world shrinking and the door of “Shady Pines” beckons.

See her while you can.  See her while she can.

 

Liliane Montevecchi: Paris on the Thames.  Crazy Coqs. Tuesday 24 February 2015, 8pm.

Hart to Hart: The Desperate Divas, St James’s Studio

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The Divas with MD Tom Wakeley. Photo by  Jonathan Hilder of Piers Photography
The Divas with MD Tom Wakeley. Photo by Jonathan Hilder of Piers Photography

If I’ve been to one compilation evening where a range of theatrical types repackage show tunes on the theme of “love, sex and relationships”, I’ve been to a hundred but the credentials of the two killer-diller headliners now trading as The Desperate Divas made this one a must. I loved Anita-Louise Combe’s wit and musical phrasing as Betty Schaeffer in Sunset Boulevard and the double CD was my “ironing music” for years (although it’s Meredith Braun on the “original London cast” album). My first This is Cabaret review was of Tiffany Graves at Lauderdale House although I’ve seen her several times in musicals and even been a backing singer for her at Cadogan Hall in 2011.

Their musical chops are unquestionable. Both have effortless, strong, supported voices which carry every melody with clarity and accuracy and although powerful are never strident or Streisand, although it’s nicest when they sing in close harmony because each takes the belt down a notch to accommodate the other’s line.

Although in musical theatre they’re equals, Graves makes the better crossover into cabaret confidential: she has a natural ability to engage with the audience and her anecdotes have both the ring of truth and beguiling self-deprecating humour.

The theme that links the songs is internet dating: both women are single and looking, and find plenty to send up in their online adventures on eHarmony and Match.com, supported by confident numbers from Chicago, White Christmas and every singleton’s (as well as every conjoined twin’s) anthem Who Will Love Me As I Am from SideShow.

But the better songs were the less well known: Single Man Drought’ from I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change is a great song sensibly extracted from a very weak musical, and Where In The World is My Prince makes a convincing case that William Finn and James Lapine’s Little Miss Sunshine deserves a UK production. Graves had great fun with a ballad about being only a garnish rather than a main course to her date, Parsley by Scott Burkell and Paul Loesel, and Combe delighted the audience with an Aussie-accented version of Fascinating
Aïda
’s hilarious My Shattered Illusion.

They excuse their occasional reliance on iPads and props with the lyrics printed on because they’re each rehearsing a role in a new musical – Graves is finally about to feature (she once failed to get to her final meeting with Susan Stroman) as Ulla in a demanding national tour of The Producers, although I suspect one of its heaviest demands may be sharing the stage with Louie Spence. But Combe is merely reprising her Chichester role as veteran stripper Tessie Tura in Gypsy, arguably one of the cushiest jobs in musical theatre because you stay upstairs with your knitting through the long first act and only appear halfway through the second to steal the show in possibly the best song in the best musical ever written.   Talk about ‘you never have to sweat to get paid’.

The publicity highlights the fact they’re two of the few actresses each to have played both Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly in Chicago. They’ve also both been in Cats – in fact Combe told the Sydney Morning Herald she auditioned for the Sarah Brightman kittenish role of Sillabub in 1985 when she was only seventeen which makes her … fabulous for her age but also makes a serious point.

They play the internet dating routines as though they were both Bridget Jones thirtysomethings chasing the same men and the same dreams, but Graves is ten years younger so there may be more mileage and a better evening to be made from contrasting their experiences. Combe says at one point she’s looking for a man for both herself and her teenage daughter. Assuming she doesn’t mean it in a Woody Allen way, this hints at a whole unexamined side to the dating game the show could explore with more pathos and emotional engagement than its long catalogue of belted show tunes.

Maybe the Divas should check out New York chantoose Colleen McHugh’s fabulous album Songs of Self-Delusion: there’s a whole new show for them in its material, from Francesca Blumenthal’s Lies of Handsome Men written the year Combe auditioned for Cats, to a gem called Pretending to Be in Paris so rare Google can’t tell me who wrote it. In fact the management of the St James’s should check it out too because McHugh is so due a London debut.

Or at least a guest spot when the Desperate Divas reconvene.

Desperate Divas, St James’s Studio, SW1. Sunday 22 February 2015, 7pm.

Further dates will be announced via http://www.thedesperatedivas.com

Review: Anne Reid’s The After-Dinnerlady, Crazy Coqs

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Anne with StefanAnne Reid’s father was a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, reporting from India, Iran and Lebanon. She says she likes journalists, as long as they don’t write anything nasty about her.

Spending an evening in her company at Crazy Coqs it would be impossible to harbour nasty thoughts about Reid – she is likeable to the point of, well, hugely likeable, natural and unstaged. At 79 and three-quarters she is vivacious, clear-eyed, sharp-minded and delivers not just one hell of an anecdote, but twenty – without staring down the audience like certain well-known Dames going “aren’t I marvellous for my age?”  She’s marvellous for any age.

And she sings. Annie, darling, the room loves you, the TV audience falls at your Last Tango in Halifax feet, everyone is jealous that at pushing 70 you boffed Daniel Craig in The Mother and made it seem he was the one that should be grateful. You don’t have to jump through the singing hoop of fire too.

That she has an occasionally flirtatious relationship with melody would matter more if she were delivering a tribute act to her hero Barbara Cook, but is forgiven here when she’s excavating, with co-conspirator Stefan Bednarczyk, the archive of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Broadway’s longest and most mutually-exclusive songwriting partnership who crafted more stage and movie musicals than Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Comden and Green wrote lasting standards like New York, New York and Singin’ In The Rain but most of their back catalogue is contextual to the musicals from which they came, and must therefore be embedded in explanatory narrative which is fascinating to musical and movie buffs but might need editing for more general audiences. Although the state in which André Previn discovered Dan Dailey at the press screening of It’s Always Fair Weather is a gem which must never be cut.

She’s such a natural raconteur with a gift for the self-deprecating remark it’s astonishing she’s not a stalwart of the TV chat-show circuit – although allegedly she has no time for Jonathan Ross – but for sure Graham Norton would let her shine.  In her 2013 cabaret at Crazy Coqs and later at the St James’s she told more personal anecdotes, and I have a feeling the audience would like even more, although her luck in meeting fleetingly both Adolph Green and an in-her-dotage Betty Comden is delivered as a delightful aside.

Bednarczyk has some great moments with a couple of songs which might today be relevant to the banking and tax dodging fraternity, especially Capital Gains (Swing Your Projects) from the rarely-revived Subways Are For Sleeping and from which Reid also swung Comes Once in a Lifetime.

She takes If You Hadn’t But You Did at half the speed of Maria Friedman but with more effect, delivers three numbers from Bells Are Ringing which confirm what a tremendous musical it is, and harmonises beautifully in Some Other Time the lovely valedictory song which closes On The Town.

I don’t want to harp on about age, but it is an astonishing performance when you recall that Anne Reid was born the same year as Elvis Presley.  Now there’s an idea for a cabaret evening.

Please note that all performances in the current run are sold out but an extra week has been added from 28 April 2015 as part of the London International Festival of Cabaret. 

Just In Time: Anne Reid and Stefan Bednarcyk at Crazy Coqs.  Tuesday 18 February 2015 at 8pm. http://www.crazycoqs.com