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 www.thedesperatedivas.com