HAPPILY EVER AFTER

Sunday 29 January 2006, The Fortune Theatre

 

Review by Emma Shane

© 30 January 2006

 

Coming a mere two months, after the big Drury Lane Childline gala, I wondered whether we might be getting a little too much in the way of Sondheim Gala’s. But without The Bridewell Theatre to fly the flag for miscellaneous Sondheim revues, there must be some means of saluting Mr Stephen Sondheim. In any case this was a totally different gala to the event across the road last November, for it was in a much smaller more intimate theatre. But just because it had the appearance of intimacy should, I suppose, not be taken too freely. Therefore in the interests of The Sondheim Society’s reputation perhaps I ought to word this review in a more formal manner to many of my reviews. However, I am not good at writing formally, so while I shall endeavour to be correct in my modes of address please excuse my ungrammatical writing.

 

The evening commenced with the core company of nine young (well young compared to the rest of the company) singing Glamorous Life (from A Little Night Music). In the role of Frederica, Miss Jodie Beth Meyer captured the audience’s hearts at once. She seems to have a talent for presenting a likeable portrayal.  Miss Marin Haf Roberts also captures the audience immediately, as Deseriee, a role that must surely be hard for one with her youth to capture so adeptly as she did. Meanwhile the director Miss Aoife Nally brings a strong stage presonce, and an even stronger singing voice to the number, as Frederica’s Grandmother. All three ladies were well supported by Mr Ray Rackham, Mr Jeoren Aarts, Mr Andrew Alexander, Mr Joseph Evans, and, Miss Tracey Baxendale.

There follows the first star turn of the evening Ladies Who Lunch (from Company), sung by Miss Josie Lawrence. She had sung this number two months previously in the gala across the road. However, tonight Miss Lawrence gives a much better performance than she had done then. For one thing her costume seemed to suit her much better, with its plain simplicity (black trousers and top with a silver collar, and her hair hung simply loose, rather than up); and for another she seemed very at ease in the intimate venue of The Fortune, compared to the cavernous Lane. Miss Lawrence looks and sounds like she does not really need the handheld microphone, but sings powerfully with conviction.

 

Mrs Stella Quilley, the show’s compare comes on to introduce the next section. She remarks that she was unaccustomed to such duties, but nevertheless acquitted herself well, given that inexperience. We witness the collective talents of the nine core members of the company.

What Can You Loose (from Dick Tracy) found Miss Marin Haf Roberts following up her splendid Desiree with another jolly good performance.

It fell to the producer and the director, Mr Ray Rackham and Miss Aoife Nally respectively, to tackle Unworthy Of Your Love (from Assassins). Both get right into their respective characters, and perform well with complete conviction. However, I do not think it is for me to comment as to whether or not this number is a good one to do in a gala.

On to more pleasant matters with Sooner Or Later (from Dick Tracy), sung by Miss Tracey Baxendale. She sings well, and strongly, whether or not she was miked I could not tell, but she is clearly the kind of singer who doesn’t need to be in this venue. Unfortunately I felt she appeared a little lacking in presonce (a bit like Miss Katrina Murphy), but that may well have been as much due to direction as anything else, since she seemed to spend half the number standing behind her fellow performances, but then again that could just have been what it looked like from where I was sitting (Stalls B16). Miss Baxendale’s performance seemed to improve rather when the other eight of the nine joined her for Night Waltz (from A Little Night Music). Which was sung and danced by all very nicely, and suitably.

Isn’t It (from Saturday Night) was given a rather individual performance by Miss Mirain Haf Roberts. One that was, accent wise, at least, very different to that of Miss Anna Francolini on the The Bridewell Theatre Company’s cast album. Miss Haf Roberts used a working class English accent (rather cockney) as opposed to Miss Francolini’s American (possibly Brooklyn) accent. However in my humble opinion I consider there is absolutely nothing wrong in a performer doing a number in a different way to the standard, provided they can make it work, at least within whatever context they are performing it. Some of the best musical theatre performers achieve great things precisely because they do thing in their own way, and I felt that once one got accustomed to it, Miss Haf Roberts made the number her own.

Joanna (from Sweeney Todd) presented Mr Andrew Alexander with his own particular challenge, for it is one of Sondheim’s more operatic pieces. However he rose to the challenge well, making it sound very much like a musical theatre piece suggesting that he might be a good candidate for shows that bridge the boundary between operetta and music theatre.

Happiness (from Passion) is inhabited quite happily by Miss Jodie Beth Meyer and Mr Joseph Evans; largely thanks to Miss Meyer’s very likeable performance. It may be that for some more conservative taste she might tend a little in the over the top direction, but personally I like performers to bring some joi de vivre to their work.

Broadway Baby (from Follies) ends the section, with another refreshingly different performance, this time from the engaging Mr Jeroen Aarts, and the dancing partner of a floor mop. He really brought a new lease of life to this popular standard; demonstrating that while we commonly think of it as a song for a good, generally powerful female performer, it does not have to be done that way. There is no reason why a male performer can’t do it. It would make a wonderful song and dance routine number for one of those really first rate tap dancers, such as Mr Kirby Ward, Mr Tim Flavin, or, Mr Darren Bennett. In the meantime, while Mr Aarts did not quite bring out the dancing in this number, he demonstrated the kernel of an excellent idea, and gave a good demonstration of his singing talent, as Mrs Quilley, coming on stage for her next narration piece remarked “I hope someone gives him a job”

 

Mrs Stella Quilley shows that she is not bad at delivering some comedy into her narrative. She proceeds to introduce the next section, by saying that we were going to see three actresses who all worked with her late husband, namely Miss Sally Ann Triplett (Anything Goes), Miss Lorna Dallas, but first Miss Liz Robertson (My Fair Lady). Having read the song list in the programme, although it may have been wrong of me to do so, I couldn’t help but feel a slight disappointment at this point, as it looked as though one item I was very much looking forward to was not going to be included. However, one must make the most of the occasion, and There Won’t Be Trumpets (from Anyone Can Whistle) performed by Miss Liz Robertson proves to be well worth hearing. She is a pretty powerful singer, I am not sure whether she was also miked or not. But she certainly gave her all in this performance. Standing centre stage 5ft8”, in white trousers with a black & silver top, looking quite commanding.  She brings to the number a wealth of experience from both Broadway and the West End (and many other places besides), with a clear understanding of the importance of being able to hear Mr Sondheim’s lyrics clearly, and sings them with the kind of conviction that helps to signify their meaning. The audience give her a pretty tremendous, well deserved applause. I can’t help thinking its going to be hard for Miss Triplett to follow this, almost showstopper. However, surprisingly, Miss Robertson stays on stage. She waits for the applause to finally die away, and then in a clear pleasant voice, announces “Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Louise Gold”. On sweeps Miss Louise Gold, who gives her introducer a quick kiss before that lady’s departure. Miss Gold is wearing black evening trousers and top, with a semi-transparent black or dark grey top over that. Her hair, which doesn’t quite reach her shoulders, is a lovely tousled bush of chestnut curls, which frame her face in a way that is so characteristic of her, even to the curled fringe that shows signs of creping towards her eyes. The only possible criticism was her make-up (if indeed she was wearing any) for the lights seemed to be shining white on her cheeks (but that could just have been the angle from which I could see her), anyway it didn’t really matter (in some ways it might be kind of appropriate to her performance). She sits down, on what looks like a pub stool, in the centre of the stage, and launches into her number.

Children Will Listen (from Into The Woods), proves to be a surprising performance, at least for many of the Mr Sondheim fanatics in the audience who had not heard it sung that way before, with all the verses (usually scattered through Into The Woods) put together in a single performance, with an arrangement by Mr Jason Carr. I had heard it sung that way before (for Miss Gold does it rather like that in her cabaret act), so I wasn’t in the least surprised, but many Mr Sondheim aficionados were and I heard several remarks during the interval, that they never realised before how many verses their actually were to that song. So for once, Miss Louise Gold (who after all starred in: The Leicester production of Merrily We Roll Along, the original London production of Assassins, The Chelmsford revival of Side By Side By Sondheim, and, The Royal Festival Hall revival of Follies) showed the Sondheim fanatics something they didn’t know about that songwriter’s work; and she did it outstandingly well, even her diction, so often her weakness, was perfectly fine, every word could be heard not only loudly but with great clarity, bringing out Mr Sondheim’s lyrics to the full. As a matter of fact, in her cabaret act, although she does this song with the same arrangement, she usually sings it as one of her softer lyrical numbers. But tonight she elected to belt it. It seems to work perfectly whichever  way she sings it. However, her performance has so much more to it than merely that element of sophisticated surprise. She is a powerful singer, who in a venue like this does not need to be miked, but she also knows perfectly well how to work with a microphone, so I have no idea whether she was miked or not, it was truly impossible to tell. Either way she delivered a tremendously powerful performance, not just in terms of vocal ability, but much more importantly in terms of sincerity. Miss Gold always sings songs as though she means them, but sometimes she gives them something just that little bit extra, as though she really truly means it. This is one of those occasions. Her performance looks and sounds absolutely heartfelt. I have no idea what on earth inspired her to sing like she did tonight. It was amazing. Like many of the great theatres in this country, especially The West End, she knows this one pretty well. Having stopped the show in Nunsense (thanks to her puppeteering abilities), and, reclaimed her position as The Discovering Lost Musicals Charitable Trust’s premier belter in 110 In The Shade (she gave a very sincere performance in that too). Whatever the reason, if indeed there is one, she delivered an stunning performance. She not only impressed the audience by doing such a surprising piece, she was also incredibly moving. I often find her singing impressive, and sincere. But its rare to find one of her performances quite so emotionally heart rendering.

Miss Gold is an excellent performer, but she also has a tendency to be irrepressibly surprising. and at the end of her number, as she got up to leave, after a quick kiss to Miss Sally Ann Triplett, who was just coming on stage; Miss Gold suddenly flashed a broad cheerful grin at the audience. For such a formal occasion as this gala, I feel sure that some people might have felt it rather out of place. However, I for one was glad to see this lovely Muppet liven up an otherwise starchy formal occasion, with a nice irreverent grin. (Miss Gold is of course quite accomplished at livening up rather formal gala’s, she’s been doing that on and off for over 28 years, this was actually one of her milder efforts; nevertheless, I for one jolly well appreciated it).

                Miss Louise Gold is a hard act to follow, this was even closer to a showstopper than Miss Liz Robertson had been. Miss Sally Ann Triplett may be used to rising to challenges (after all she created Miss Victoria Wood’s role of Miss Berta in Acorn Antiques for the stage), even so she’s hard put to follow Miss Gold’s showstopper. Sensibly, Miss Triplett provides a nice contrast to those two, by singing a number stylistically different and well suited to her talents, I Remember (from Evening Primrose). The previous two numbers had been sung by two exceedingly powerful singers, belters one might say. Now Miss Triplett has some experience of belting herself, but as a belter she is not really in the same league as either Miss Robertson or Miss Gold, therefore, it was a far better use of her talent to have her sing a quieter ballad, one that absolutely didn’t demand to be belted. I thought she sang very nicely. Definitely one of her better performance. Unfortunately coming hot on the heels of Miss Gold (in one of her The Fortune showstopping acts) she did not make as much of an impact as she might otherwise have done.

Further rough spots in the running order occurred with Miss Lorna Dallas wandering briefly onto the stage. In what I take to be whatever the opposite of a missed cue is?

                It Takes Two (from Into The Woods) was performed entirely satisfactorily by Mr Jeoen Aarts and Miss Mirain Haf Roberts, but the audience still hadn’t really settled enough after the star turns to give it full attention.

                For this same reason, I didn’t even notice the absence of Mr Nigel Harman or the number he was supposed to have sung, Being Alive(from Company).

                One More Kiss (from Follies), sung by another star turn, Miss Lorna Dallas, did of course receive the attention it demanded. Perhaps so that she might know it was actually her turn to come on, someone, possibly Mr Jeoen Aarts, who was just leaving introduced her. Miss Dallas sang sweetly and yet powerfully, displaying to the full her abilities in the Operetta department; a useful background for a Sondheim singer, and something I did not know she possessed. Definitely a performance worth seeing, and a number not often done in gala’s and compilation shows? Though I see no reason why it can’t be, as long as you have a suitable singer, which we certainly had here.

                The first act ended with the nine performing Getting Married Today (from Company). Miss Tracy Baxendale gave her vocal powers to the role of the guest/narrator, Mr Jeoren Aartas brought his talent to the role of the groom, and, Miss Aoife Nally furnished the bride with both voice and presonce (both required when doing that part in a compilation show). She sang well, and took the patter impressively fast, reminiscent perhaps of the great Millicent Martin. Her bride sounds like a woman forced into a marriage, rather than being nervous or flightly. And, if you are doing this song outside of Company, I much prefer the ‘forced marriage’ interpretations (for example who remembers the almost shot-gun like take on the song in the Chelmsford revival of Side By Side By Sondheim?). It was a very satisfying end to a generally excellent first act.

 

For the second act, some of the “Stars” of the first act, joined the audience in various odd gaps around the auditorium. Is that considered the done thing at a very formal gala such as this supposedly is? Surely not? Well why not? I actually thought it was nice for them, and some of them definitely looked like they were enjoying that opportunity.

Perpetual Anticipation and Pretty Lady (from A Little Night Music and Pacific Overtures respectively) opened the second half, performed by the nine, very nicely. This included in particular Miss Haf Roberts as the girl who is mistaken for a Geisha. It got things off to a reasonably good start.

A Little Priest (from Sweeney Todd) stepped the performance level up a gear, in the capable hands of Miss Aoife Nally and Mr Jeroen Aarts. They made the number very much their own. Miss Nally sang in an accent which although English was definitely not the customary cockney. I do not know if it was because she couldn’t do it well enough, or because she did not wish to do so (not knowing enough about her talent, I couldn’t possibly say). Either way, I thought it made a refreshing change to have it done differently, reinterpreted. She demonstrated a new way of doing the song, which some other performers (especially any who has difficulty with cockney accents) would do well to take note of. It can work very well not done in cockney. Contextually it may not be quite right, but out of context it works fine. she also delivered the familiar lyrics in a refreshingly individual way, such that it does not matter who else (even if they were very great singers) that you have heard do it), she made it her own.

                Doing things differently was definitely in the air tonight, especially in the second half; (well actually with Mr Aarts and Miss Gold around it had been there to some extent in the first half too, but it definitely characterised the second half. The first second concluded with Everybody’s Got The Right (from Assassins). This found the nine each carrying a different weapon, these included: Miss Nally with the rolling pin and Mr Aarts with the razor from the previous number, now joined by one of the guys with a gun, and, Miss Meyer with a rope amongst other weapons. All performed with great verve and enthusiasm.

 

Mrs Quilley gave some more narration to lead into the next section. Which began with another exceeding different performance, this time of Loving You (from Passion) with which Miss Tracy Baxendale finally comes very much into her own, with an alcoholic’s version of the number! “You” referring in this case to the bottle. It was quite a variation, but very well performed, and it definitely worked. There’s another bright idea.

                Marry Me A Little (from Company)was performed entirely satisfactorily by Mr Andrew Alexander, but somehow I was unable to get the memory of the version of it done in revue There’s Always A Woman out of my head.

                Everyday A Little Death (from A Little Night Music) was, in my humble opinion, the least remarkable performance from two generally pretty impressive performers amongst the nine Miss Aoife Nally and Miss Mirain Haf Roberts. I think in this particular instance it may be just that the number is not a particularly remarkable one. They performed it perfectly well, but it just made no impression on me.

                We’re Gonna Be Alright (from Do I Hear A Waltz), is the only number in the entire evening for which Mr Stephen Sondheim did not write the music, that is by Mr Richard Rodgers. It was performed tonight by Mr Ray Rackham and Miss Tracy Baxendale. An excellently enthusiastic, pretty well executed performance. Perhaps unusually, for an out of context performance, they elected to do it following the original take on the song, performing it as though in a production of Do I Hear A Waltz, as opposed to the way it tends to get done in Side By Side By Sondheim. This is a little disconcerting, and take some getting used to, if you are more familiar with the Side By Side By Sondheim version. Although I thought it good, especially for two younger performers, to do it in its more original form, I did miss some of the ironic moments that tend to creep into the Side By Side By Sondheim version of this song.

                No One Is Alone (from Into The Woods) concluded the section, I felt that this was not one of the best Mr Sondheim songs to end on, although it was performed perfectly well, but the nine. However, since this was by no means the end of the show, perhaps it was s well not to end with anything too spectacular.

 

Mrs Stella Quilley narrated us into the next section, a small one, just two songs, from the same musical (Sunday In The Park With George). Enter Mr Daniel Evans to sing Finishing The Hat. He was evidently miked, in fact his radio mike looked rather intrusive on his face. More in keeping with his Act 2 character in Sunday In The Park With George than Georges Seurat. However he did give an extremely impressive performance, which provoked showstopping thundering applause. So much so, it was just as well that it was followed by him and the nine singing Sunday. This gave him a sort of encore, and brought the audience sufficiently down to earth before the finale star turn.

 

Mrs Quilley did not have much to say in her finale narration, just to let us know that Miss Barbara Cook had flown over especially from America to entertain us tonight. Presumably this introduction was also meant to serve to make sure the audience was properly appreciative.

                Miss Barbara Cook opened her section with Everybody Says Don’t (from Anyone Can Whistle). In some ways an intriguing number for a woman, since it is originally sung by a man. Though that is no reason for a woman not to do it. She sang well, for her age extremely well. She clearly has her own Easy Listening style, and having never come across her before I was not yet sure whether I actually liked her style, though of course I was impressed by her performance.

She then launched into Another Hundred People and So Many People (from Company and Saturday Night), fortunately she did not linger too long on the former. It’s a hard enough song for any good show singer to do, let alone at her age. But with the latter she really came into her own. She gave us some narration of her own, some of which, such as saying that “I don’t need to tell you they’re by Sondheim, because you know that already” prompted some loud laughter from the auditorium.

You Could Drive A Person Crazy (from Company), was, to be sure a different take on that song, it included some clever alterations to the lyrics. I’m sure the Mr Sondheim fanatics in the audience noticed them, especially the name “Zombie” instead of “Bobby”. But it was really a very interesting version, and she put it across with such enthusiasm, one could not help but enjoy it. When a performer really gives a song their all and sings with joi de vivre it’s infectious.

I particularly liked her performance of Buddy’s Eyes (from Follies). She sang it so beautifully, and so utterly believably. That one really impressed me, and it was so convincing, like she meant it.

Her finale was Not A Day Goes By and Losing My Mind (from Merrily We Roll Along and Follies). Although I felt it was impressive that she actually managed to sing the former (for it has a reputation for being difficult), I enjoyed the latter much more, and found it as good as her splendid performance of Buddy’s Eyes had been. I think everyone else did too. The audience gave her thundering applause. Miss Liz Robertson and Miss Louise Gold had got a good response for their near showstoppers in the first act. Mr Daniel Evans had done extremely well in the second act, but this surpassed even that thunder, by orders of magnitude. And then a redhead in the front row (actually one of Act 1’s “Stars”) leapt up, and the next second more than half the rest of us followed to give a standing ovation.

                Naturally there had to be an encore; and Miss Barbara Cook gave us a lovely one, Anyone Can Whistle (from Anyone Can Whistle). I always thought that having heard Mr David Kernan make that song so much his own in Side By Side By Sondheim, it would be hard to hear anyone else do it. But I had reckoned without Miss Barbara Cook. She performed it with a lot of simplicity, and sincerity. And turned it very much into what Mr Howard Keel would have called a “get off song”, the one that after they have sung it the performer really cannot do anything else but get off the stage; and so she did. Bringing a unique gala to a close.

 

All in all quite an evening. Because The Fortune is a more intimate venue, in spite of the glamorous formality of the occasion, this gala actually had more intimacy than the one across the road at The Lane two months ago. And Miss Josie Lawrence’s performance in particular, seemed to benefit from that. Variation and doing things differently seemed to be the hallmark or the night. Special Guest Star Miss Barbara Cook’s amazing grand finale performance was a splendid example of that, for she did all the numbers in her own style: In particular You Could Drive A Person Crazy, Buddy’s Eyes, Loosing My Mind, and Anyone Can Whistle. But she was by no means the only person to do things in their own unique way. Of the nine core company all performed very much in their own way, but that was especially true of Mr Jeron Aartes, Miss Mirain Haf Roberts, Miss Aoife Nally, and, Miss Tracy Baxendale with: Isn’t It, Broadway Baby, A Little Priest, and, Loving You. While of the other Star turns, Miss Louise Gold managed to surprise even some of the Mr Sondheim fanatics with her contribution bringing a new lease of life to an often overlooked Sondheim gem, Children Will Listen. Too often, while divided into three parts, each is done rather unremarkably in Into The Woods, but put together and sung so powerfully with such heartfelt feeling there is one amazing song. All I can say is that I’m particularly glad the Mr Sondheim aficionados at long last got to hear such a spectacular range of variations performed so well en masse.

 

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