Two’s A Crowd
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, Sunday 20 October 2002
Review by Emma Shane
© October 2002
Well it may be a new little musical, but it’s a jolly good one, and excellently performed by two excellent pianists and two outstanding singers. The plot centres on the idea, apparently this really did happen to Robert Habermann, of what happens when a jazz singer and an operatic diva get accidentally double booked at a venue. The truly extraordinary thing about the evening is that in this production those roles are in fact played by a jazz singer and an operatic diva respectively. Well one might have expected a real established jazz singer, in this case it is John Polhammer, but here the diva is also played by a real one, Rosalind Plowright, and does she do it well.
The evening starts with the jazz singer and his pianist, Sean Whittle, coming on to familiarise themselves with the venue. He finds the microphone, but the theatre appears to be empty. He tries out his voice anyway, with a good rendition of On The Wings Of A Song, and then they both leave. Now the diva enters, followed by her pianist, Paul Knight. The ‘theatre’ is supposed to be empty, but a chunk of the audience decided it had to applaud Ms Plowright’s entrance, I think this may be common with world class diva’s, for certainly they did this last summer at Holland Park when she appeared in Adriana Lecouvreur. However, Rosalind Plowright soon proves to have a commanding stage presonce, worthy of the applause, and having warmed up her voice, she sings an aria, Una Voce Poco Fa (by Rossini), and rather firmly removed the jazz singer’s microphone. As she exits the curtains swish shut, and an off stage male gives a standard performance type announcement, first telling the audience to ensure mobile phones are switched off, and then that tonight’s artiste needs no introduction. At this point our two singers enter sideways from opposite sides of the stage, comically bump into each other back to back, and launch into What’s Going On, which both of them sing clearly and convincingly. It is also noticeable that there is a subtle insertion of the place we are actually in, Southampton. The Diva, Dame Gelina Eisevitch thinks that the Jazz Singer is here to introduce her, while the Jazz Singer, Al Denton, thinks that the Diva is a fan whose got rather carried away. For the Jazz singer it is his worst nightmare come true, the Diva meanwhile comments that in the introduction “You didn’t mention my appearance with Pavarotti”, a rather nice touch, especially given that Rosalind Plowright herself has actually appeared with Luciano Pavarotti (in fact according to her resume in the programme, she has also worked with: Jose Carerrs and Placido Domingo). Al protests he is a singer too, to which the Diva tells him that if he really could sing he wouldn’t need a microphone. They both decide to telephone their agents, on their mobiles. And there thus follows a highly amusing scene poking fun at both agents and telephone option menus. Al’s agent’s phone number gives him 3 options, the third being to leave a message. The Diva fares even worse “I got up to option twenty seven, but their wasn’t a menu item to cover a boorish has been in a tuxedo” she says, and goes to try and find the manager. Al stays on stage, and begins his act, The Lady Is A Tramp. He sings it rather well, especially given that I am not usually all that keen on men singing the song, thankfully he does not try to change the gender or anything like that, but we are left wondering, what lady is he thinking of?
The Diva returns, having been unable to get the manager as he was dealing with another problem “Some sort of crisis with the cornettos”. One thing noticeable almost immediately this evening, is what a lovely gracious silky speaking voice Rosalind Plowright possesses. Al decided to go and see if he can speak to the manager himself, so now it is the Diva’s turn to begin her recital, with Seguidilla from Bizet’s Carmen. Musically this suits Plowright’s voice just wonderfully. She has such a strong fiery instrument. Al returns with a couple of melting ice-creams, he offers one to the Diva, but is also rather silly about it, resulting in her turning it upside-down on his sleeve. He has however found out what is going on “It seems that the theatre has accidentally double booked us”, and then suggests that a way of dealing with the situation is to sing together, and asks The Diva if she knows any show tunes “I suppose I’m familiar with a few” she says, sounding resigned. He then asks “How well can you act?” It is in fact becoming apparent to the audience that Rosalind Plowright can actually act rather well. She is entirely convincing as a Diva, and she is also surprisingly good at delivering acid oneliners. It is difficult, even in the world of musical theatre to find actresses who are really good at delivering acid one liners, but this opera singer seems to have the knack for it, practically as well as the best of them. They attempt a duet, Make Believe (by Jerome Kern), from Showboat, which besides being more or less the first true musical is also stylistically something of an operetta. (it has also been played as a Jazz piece), so it is incredibly suitable for the situation. Even more ironically the female part was originally sung on Broadway by Norma Terris the woman who had Jerome Kern’s It’s Getting Hotter In The North, which she called “a lousy jazz number”, thrown out of Showboat But the two characters are not ready to work together. He sings a few very jazzed up lines, only to be interrupted “If you’re going to sing it, sing it properly” she says, and I think she does actually have a good point, at least where that song is concerned. The Diva then shows us how this song should be sung, and I’m must admit I much preferred her except of it to his. In the character of Magnolia singing Make Believe Rosalind Plowright is a fine match for some of the wonderful people who’ve recorded that role, such as: Irene Dunne, Kathryn Grayson, and, Frederica Von Stade. Vocally it suites her voice, and her diction is perfect. Al joins in jazzily, but as The Diva sings as the end of a line “I don’t think this is working” At this point they launch into another song I Don’t Care To Share. As The Diva, Rosalind Plowright soon shows that though an English Opera singer, she can sing showtunes and sing them clearly, and by and large when she is singing showtune stuff she contrives not to venture into what Ethel Merman called “Concert English”, at least not very often. This causes Al to remark “The only reason Make Believe wasn’t working is because you don’t know how to swing.” “What a coincidence, you don’t know how to sing” retorts the Diva, and then she asks, very convincingly I might add, “What is this mysterious thing called swing anyway?” Al proceeds to demonstrate with Swinging With The Band. He performs this well, but part of our attention is on The Diva. Initially she looks interested but soon bored begins filing her nails. She does a rather good job of looking board, though it is fortunate that the song started with the bass, as its doubtful whether this particular Diva could have looked bored during that bit. She does however convincingly tell Al that it doesn’t do a thing for her.
Al’s next suggestion is that they try something from her repertoire, to the Diva’s disbelief. Now it is her turn to ask “How well can you act”, and suggest they try Mon Coeur S’Ouvre A Ta Voix from Samson and Delilah by Saint Saens. This has a comical moment when he, while kneeling down on a cushion, is enveloped by her train, after which he gets up, goes over to the chair and lights a cigarette. There follows an excellently performed unspoken interaction: she goes over to him, removes his cigarette and throws it away, he makes sure it is stubbed out. Then she signals for him to come back to the centre of the stage for the climax, which he does. However he goes rather over the top singing “Delilah”. Although The Diva is the one singing, a good deal of our attention during this number is directed towards Al, and it is here that Rosalind Plowright displays a rare acting gift, for being able to keep the audiences attention focused wherever it is supposed to be at a given moment. I have only come across even one actress with quite that ability before.
The jazz singer complains that he has not been given a proper chance, he is more versatile than she thinks, and he can sing opera, to which the diva retorts silkily “Are you sure you don’t mean Soap Opera.? We don’t want the theme from Neighbours”, at which I am only surprised she didn’t say Eastenders, but then again the Eastenders theme does not have lyrics, where as the Neighbours one does. He then proceeds to attempt Mozart’s Don Giovanni Serenade, which somehow turns unexpectedly into Cole Porter’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin. This elicits a suitable oh you would do that kind of look from the diva. In fact one of the great strengths of this production is Rosalind Plowright’s ability to convey all the subtleties of her character remarkably well. If she were to relay purely on the scripted lines her character would come across as rather haughty and unyielding. In a way which would not only make the audience unsympathetic to her but would also make some of the action in the second half exceedingly unconvincing. But Ms Plowright plays her carefully, making her snobbish only on the surface. Her acid lines contain more than an element of truth, and I think many of the audience were actually inclined to be on her side, even though the script tends be, perhaps not surprisingly, more sympathetic to the jazz singer. However such is the flair with which these two performers play their roles, the jazz singer comes across as a bit of an egocentric joker, and it is in fact the diva herself who seems to be the more genuine artiste of the two. And although this may be partly due to John Polhammer’s direction of himself and Ms Plowright, I think a good deal of it might well come from Rosalind Plowright’s own acting abilities.
Now the diva decides, and I think the audience rather agree with her, that the jazz singer has hogged the stage for long enough, it’s time for her to do a solo. He offers her the microphone “Do you really want me to tell you where you can stick that?” asks the silky-voiced diva asks sweetly. At this crucial moment Al’s mobile rings. The diva is appalled by his unprofessionally in having his mobile switched on in a theatre. And her mobile promptly goes off too. Their respective agents have finally returned their calls. I particularly noticed Al exclaiming about the diva “She’s like taller than I am”. I’m not entirely sure where the 5ft10” diva is actually shorter or taller than the jazz singer, but they seem to be pretty close in height. The jazz singer retreats with his mobile, and the diva rapidly swings into action to perform La Romanza by Ponchielli. Here Rosalind Plowright’s big powerful plummy voice comes into its own, and she gets thundering applause. “I can sure see why you don’t need a mike” says Al, who has now returned. It’s almost time for the interval, so the first act ends with both singers and the theme song Two’s A Crowd. Both of them sing incredibly clearly. But the real surprise of the number is Rosalind Plowright. She demonstrates a good ability to change style quickly (well a moment before she was singing opera in Italian, and now she’s singing what is definitely a musical number in clear English). She can also act in the middle of a song, for example at one moment midway through the song she gives a slight laugh and spoken line “I wasn’t aware you American’s had any standards”. This song has some lovely lyrics, my favourite was Al raving about the glories of Jerome Kern, partly because it reminded me that one of my favourite Kern recordings is a certain British actress’s recording of Long Ago And Far Away (on The Hot Shoe Shuffle BCA). The act actually ends with our diva annoying the jazz singer intensely with a blaze of vocal gymnastics, I think he deserved it.
The second act begins with the jazz singer alone on the stage, singing, first a burst of Swanee (a song which always makes me think of “South German” penguins) and then It’s Today. He sings them well, and they are both songs with stand up well to jazzing up. He then explains that The Diva will not be returning as she is having a problem with the lock on her dressing room door. Of course we all realise her wicked rival has locked her in. He continues his act with By Myself, in the middle of which the Diva enters loudly. She is wearing a red dress with a pink sash, and brandishing a dagger. Al asks “For Pete’s sake who are you now, Kiri Te Can Opener?” He also wonders how on earth she got out. She explains that she used this prop from Tosca that she had in her luggage, to force the window, and then climbed out onto an illegally parked car that happened to be underneath it. From her description it sounds like Al’s and he promptly runs off stage after it.
Now alone on the stage it is The Diva’s turn, and she launches into Ortrude’s Curse by Wagner, which just happens to be quite a useful one if you have a dagger as a prop. For this aria Rosalind Plowright really steps the power up a notch, she’s a tall woman with a good set of pipes. For some inexplicable reason (well I suppose it might make sense if you know the opera the aria comes from) she elected to give her character in this aria a hunchback, which does not really fit in with her slender beauty. “I needed that” she says at the end of this splendid aria. Now the diva really is getting into her stride. She had delivered Ortrude’s Curse well, but the next aria, Habanera by Bizet, from Carmen, proves to be a real delight. The aria is a terrific one anyway, even if your musical tastes are not high opera, its thoroughly enjoyable, and Rosalind Plowright’s performance of it simply cannot be bettered. Gosh how I’d love to see her sing the title role in Carmen. In this show Habanera is the high spot of the arias. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, in the manner of a production of a good old showtune, it did. The Diva herself descended from the stage, down the steps on stage left. She walked up the stage left aisle a little way, back down it, and then across the auditorium in front of the stage, pausing every now and then to sing this or that bit directly to various audience members. It was just brilliant, and I wonder how many of the audience have ever been so close to a real diva before?
At the conclusion of the wonderful Habanera, Al enters, looking dishevelled and out of breath. The Diva takes the opportunity of returning his last insult to her, by calling him “Rosemary Crooner”. He tries to light a cigarette “Would you mind not lighting that foul death stick” she says sweetly, in that lovely silky voice of hers. Reflecting on the situation Al remarks “At least I tried to be Gobi to your Callas, and you are very Callas”. (Some of us are reminded at this point that Rosalind Plowright herself has been described as “An English Maria Callas”!). Al continues to suggest once again that they should try and work together, perhaps sort of like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. “I won’t dance, don’t ask me” says The Diva, and when Al picks up on that, well it is a Dorothy Fields lyric to a Jerome Kern song, she says “No, I mean it, I won’t dance, don’t ask me”, which of course all the audience are amused by. Getting worked up, again the pair proceed to sing another of Graeme Davies’s new linking numbers, Why Not. Both handle their individual bits of the song well, and their diction cannot be faulted, which is always a bonus. But Rosalind Plowright is the surprising one, for it is here for the first time she really does sound more like a show singer than an opera singer doing a cross over, without even a single trace of ‘Concert English’. At the end of this number, she clears her throat, loudly, and we come to a scene which I think is one of John Polhammer’s more sincere and convincing moments, and one which I think is a crucial turning point in the drama. Al tells The Diva “You’re not sensitive to the music you just plough right though it”, he continues to berate her, saying that she doesn’t care “You’re all technical and no heart”, and the end of this diatribe he stomps off. The Diva is left alone on the stage, with just a pianist. “I haven’t lost what makes music art, have I?” she asks. She sings On The Wings Of A Song, her way, which is quite different to the earlier version we had heard of it, and I think I preferred hers, because it actually seemed to have more feeling. She needn’t worry, she has all the feeling and sincerity necessary, and the audience know it. The Diva, as played by Rosalind Plowright, is really touched and hurt by the accusation that she does not feel the music, for Ms Plowright clearly does feel the music and really does sing it with heart. She ventures a little into ‘Concert English’ during this song, but only briefly, and she sings with such sincerity that we don’t mind, it is in keeping with her character, and we’re on her side.
Al re-enters, and he and the Diva apologise to each other, not a lot, but a bit. As acted by Ms Plowright, the Diva at least is sincere about this, but I’m not sure about John Polhammer’s Al, he’s too much of a devious joker for one to be sure he is being genuinely honest. Al then praises her technique and asks for a lesson in belting, which she is agreeable to giving him. Although she does inform him, that he should stop smoking. “There’s no room for fags in opera” she says, and then gives the whole thing a rather subtle twist by miming stubbing out a cigarette herself, the audience promptly laugh. Now, of course it is The Diva’s turn to offer to try jazz, to which Al says “Well you know what they say. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” The Diva seems intrigued “What a novel phrase. Shame about the grammar. Doesn’t mean a thing if it hasn’t got a swing” she says; and given her relationship to jazz in general and that song in particular, it is more than a little ironic (especially if you happen to have heard a certain actress’s recording of the number). Al now proceeds to induct The Diva into the mysterious art of swing with Nice ‘N’ Easy Does It. He sings the song well, but the hint in the script at this point that he may have spiked her tea is wholly unnecessary. Unnecessary, because Rosalind Plowright’s acting ability has already given The Diva such a personality that it is quite convincing that by this stage in the evening she would be willing to attempt to cross-over, without any need for the jazz singer to resort to subterfuge. Had The Diva merely been played as merely egocentrial, it might have been a necessary plot device. But Ms Plowright has carefully played the role in such a way as to make her into a real believable character, who genuinely loves music and her art. Earlier in the first act, Al said “There isn’t room enough on this stage for a talent the size of mine and an ego the size of yours”, in fact that should have been the other way round. It’s really Al who has the bigger ego. A key example of Ms Plowright’s excellent characterisation, is the way the diva is genuinely touched and hurt by Al accusing her of being all technique and no feeling. It is therefore entirely in keeping with the character, that that accusation alone would encourage her to attempt, for one night only, to really try and cross over, and it’s far more convincing than the other suggestion in the plot, of Al getting her drunk to persuade her. Al suggests she attempt the song Nobody Does It Like Me, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields (one of Ms Fields’s very last songs). At first the Diva is appalled, not liking the words, but she agrees to give it ago, and it is here we witness a startling and very surprising transformation. Nobody does this song like Rosalind Plowright. Now the diva has truly turned into a show singer, and a very good one she is too! As Al puts it, she is indeed a natural. The audience go quite wild with delight. I doubt there are very many show singers who could possibly equal Rosalind Plowright with this number (well I can think of a few, but only a very few). As Al says it is an amazing metamorphosis.
The Diva seems pretty surprised too, and worried that her reputation could be trampled in the dust. Actually she needn’t worry, an ability to do this sort of thing really well, is more likely to enhance her reputation in some circles (at least it may well have the effect of encouraging those audience members who were not previously that into opera that they might reconsider, at least if its something where she’s singing). Their, and our, wonderment at the transformation that has just taken place is summed up in The First Time. As she sings, “This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this. I don’t know why, suddenly I started to swing”, and Al truly complements her, saying that she is a natural, which if tonight’s performance is anything to go by is indeed the case. Indeed tonight’s show, or at least Rosalind Plowright’s performance in it, might very well be summed up by this number. For it very possibly is the first time Ms Plowright has ever done anything like this, a least professionally (apparently she did have some experience many many years ago, as a teenager, singing with an amateur modern jazz trio), but she looks like she’s clearly enjoying discovering just how well she really can do a cross-over.
The compliments follow thick and fast in the next number, You Medley, a compilation of song extracts featuring the word “You”. Both performers sing well, I only wish the excerpts had been a little longer. It is noticeable that Ms Plowright gets all the more operatic numbers, but with the exception of an extract of You Are Love she thankfully manages to steer clear of Concert English, she also gets to sing some of the lighter extracts. The You Medley is followed by a new “you” song, You Put It There. This is a sweet song, and our two singers do it very well and very clearly. Vocally Rosalind Plowright cannot help dominating it a bit, if only because her voice is so gloriously big, rich and melodic. But one does not mind this in the slightest, besides I happen to like hearing singers with big powerful plummy voices, at least if they also happen to be really good singers. In addition, although vocally she dominates, when it comes to actually acting a scene, she is very good at keeping the balance of power between the characters wherever it is supposed to be. I can only think of one West End actress who could keep a balance of power in its proper place better than this opera singer can!
Now we come to the show’s finale, a reprise of the title song Two’s A Crowd. They end the first part of it, dancing together, and Al actually has the diva held in a bit of a back bend!. They disappear off stage pretty quickly. But it is not long before two stage-hands push a bed onto the stage, and sitting in it they reprise the song again. I felt that the ‘bed’ ending was unnecessary, in fact about as unnecessary as marrying off Donna The Dynamo (as played by a certain diva’s younger sister) at the end of Mamma Mia! amongst other obligatorily bedded endings. At the final conclusion the bed is taken off, and the two stars (she is still properly dressed, but his shirt is hanging loose) walk back on stage for the final bows, and much deserved applause.
All in all a highly enjoyable evenings entertainment, regardless of whether your particular tastes are: Jazz, Classical, or, Musical Theatre. The two singers and two pianists are all excellent, and perform the concoction really well. Helped by the fact that in addition to being versatile singers both the singers can also act. Some of the scripted action in the second half leaves a bit to be desired, most notably the spiking of the tea and the bedded ending. Quite frankly they could have finished very well with the pair just singing (and perhaps dancing to) another duet. The pair manage to make their respective characters convincing living breathing people. But the really delightful surprise of the evening is Rosalind Plowright. She after all is a world class opera singer, she has sung with all three of the tenors (even if one appearance with Pavarotti at Covant Garden was as a last minute replacement for somebody else). Tonight she proves what a game lady she is, letting her hair down, by appearing in this delightful entertainment, and doing a jolly good send up of an opera diva (in fact this is something she evidently has rather a flair for, having previously acted on television in The House Of Eliot and The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous). But even more surprising is just how good she is at singing a cross-over. She is every bit as good as the great American Cross-over Opera singers such as: Dawn Upshaw and Frederica Von Stade, and as Al puts it turns out to be quite the swinger after all. To hear Ms Plowright sing Nobody Does It Like Me, you’d think she’d been doing it all her life, who knows? I am also really impressed by her dramatic presonce and her ability to live her arias, making them accessible even to those of us who are not that accustomed to hearing opera. But I am particularly impressed by her ability to switch style very quickly, and as it happens very effectively. One moment she’s all operatic, the next moment she’s giving as clear sincere delivery of a showtune as you could wish for. It is a real thrill to see her in such an entertainment as this. Truly nobody does it quite like Rosalind Plowright.
Off Site Links:
Two’s A Crowd’s offical website: http://www.twosacrowd.com/
Rosalind Plowright’s Official Website: http://www.rosalindplowright.com/