Concert Review – An Evening with Julie Andrews at the O2, 8th May 2010

9 May

I Could Have Danced All Night from the original Broadway case recording of My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady - an album cover full of nostalgia

Here’s the thing. I’ve been a fan of Julie Andrews since the first time I heard the original Broadway cast recording of My Fair Lady as a child. The LP, one of my mother’s souvenirs from a trip to New York in 1956 when the show was playing, was almost constantly on the turntable, and that crystalline Andrews soprano had me enthralled as she metamorphosed from guttersnipe to lady through those brilliant Lerner and Lowe songs.

In due course, My Fair Lady was joined in my affections by The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, and much later, Victor/Victoria, which I saw on Broadway in 1996, admiring Andrews’ fascinating stage presence – that artful mixture of regal poise and sophisticated comedy, and still-commanding vocal artistry.

Since then, the consequences of a notorious operation on her vocal chords have been widely reported and Andrews has spoken movingly about the loss of one of the greatest instruments in the history of stage and film musicals. But she has soldiered on with her career as a movie actress and children’s author, coming to terms with it in a way that probably owes everything to the show-must-go-on discipline of her vaudeville roots.

My musical tastes have expanded in all sorts of directions but Andrews has continued to command a special place in my affections. Never exactly fashionable and much – if affectionately – mocked for the clarity of her diction, she nonetheless represents a style of singing that epitomises the glory days of the Broadway musical in a way that few of today’s pop-influenced performers can approach.

And since the singing came to its premature halt, Andrews has continued to grace any film lucky enough to have her in the cast with the same considerable acting skills that won her an Oscar for Mary Poppins and made her the definitive Maria von Trapp. All of which makes writing what must follow feel like an act of sacrilege.

Julie Andrews returned to the concert stage in London for the first time in more than 30 years on Saturday 8th May at the O2 Arena. The show, billed as The Gift of Music – An Evening With Julie Andrews, was a tribute to the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose words and music have been such a constant thread in Andrews’ career. Their songs provided the framework for the first half of the evening, while the second was a semi-staged performance of Simeon’s Gift, a musical adaptation of one of Andrews’ most successful children’s books, co-written with her daughter Emma Walton.

As a concept, alas, the concert was doomed to disappoint on multiple levels: two unequal halves welded together by the singing of five Broadway artists (Stephen Buntrock, Christiane Noll, Kevin Odekirk, Anne Runolfsson and Jubilant Sykes), overseen by a gracious Andrews who too often resembled a benevolent teacher encouraging her charges through a public master class.

How could it fall so far short of expectations? Let’s start with the venue. The O2 is a vast cavern, pure and simple. There could hardly be a less appropriate arena for a concert that by its very title promised a warm, intimate exchange between the star of the show and her audience.

Then there was the title itself, which suggested that even if Andrews would not be singing a great deal, she would at least be a constant presence on the stage, doing rather more than supplying brief introductions for her guest artists. Competent as they generally were, they were not the reason we had trekked out to North Greenwich, and the programme’s over-reliance on their efforts created a constant sense of impatience for something more from the Dame herself.

Instead, she came and went during a first half that was little more than a loosely linked selection of ballads and waltzes, occasionally – and not nearly enough – dropping in a short anecdote.

Which brings us to the voice, a subject on which sensitivity must inevitably be tempered by reality. Andrews had been brutally honest in keeping our expectations of her own vocal performance realistic, explaining that her discovery of a handful of bass notes now allows her to talk-sing her way through a number.

Even so, it was impossible not to feel a wave of nostalgia and sadness when on the giant screen, at the start of the evening, the young Julie in her novice’s habit came running towards us across the Alpine fields and that voice soared direct from the soundtrack above the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s live accompaniment.

The audience was so galvanised by this poignant moment that Andrews’ emergence in the spotlight as “The Sound of Music” reached its climax was greeted by a prolonged and passionate ovation. And here was the evening’s major problem. What more could we expect, apart from simply basking in her presence – albeit at a distance of several hundred feet for most of us – for the next two hours? In truth, the answer was, not as much as we would have liked.

Occasionally, a note was held with all the old power, and the audience whooped with appreciation. But Andrews’ strength was always in her melodic line and the enforced changes to accommodate her limited range sounded mechanical rather than fluid and instinctive.

My Funny Valentine: a poignant moment at the O2

Plenty of older singers find ways to develop their story telling and phrasing to compensate for diminishing vocal qualities, and it would be good to hear her exploring these possibilities. Judging by her poignant renditions of “My Funny Valentine” and “Cockeyed Optimist” – the only two complete numbers she performed at the O2 – that would be an effective route, and it would certainly allow her to build a more autobiographical programme with plenty of options for interacting with video of her younger self, if that is her preferred medium.

These two songs aside, we were left with the snippets that she contributed to numbers largely performed by the guest singers, and if we felt a little short-changed, I don’t think anyone could blame us.

Simeon’s Gift, with music by Ian Fraser, who also conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra throughout the evening, is a thoroughly decent, old-fashioned family entertainment. As a chamber musical, it would work a treat. Fraser’s songs are big, sumptuous ballads, and the story is a touching fable of the importance and triumph of ideas and music.

But even with Andrews as the narrator, firmly steering things along, it was entirely swallowed by the darkness of the cavernous arena. And it simply felt too unconnected with the first half of the programme. The steady trickle of early leavers who contributed to a slightly restive feel around the audience suggested that I was not alone in my reservations.

If Julie Andrews ever returns to London with a programme that does more justice to the considerable whole of her career, finds new ways to bring the stories of her best-loved songs alive herself, and offers it in a more meaningful auditorium so that the audience really can connect with her, I’ll happily pay to go and see her again. Until then, I’ll stick to the albums. With the ‘best’ seats at more than £80 and souvenir programmes at £12, the cost of this evening was way too high, even for two hours in the presence of a legend.

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14 Responses to “Concert Review – An Evening with Julie Andrews at the O2, 8th May 2010”

  1. Martina Kovi Mrs May 9, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    I am absolute agree with your. I’m a big fan of Julie Andrews and I very happy to saw her but a little disappointed too.
    We went for the concert from Hungary and I would like a more of Julie Andrews. I really think that her voice is wonderful and I think the evening would be more perfect if Julie Andrews sang more and more…..other songs from other famous films or musicals that I think the fans like.
    You wrote that your ticket is 80 pounds … our ticket was 105 pounds/person… and we didn’t sit a really good place like you…..
    A hate the ticket master… I don’t want to complaint…but we bought the ticket in last November…
    So by the way I’m very very very happy to saw Julie Andrews in a stage a never thought it has been eventuated.
    So after all I’m very happy!!!! But I think Julie Andrews has better voice than she think.

    Martina
    Hungary

    (sorry about the grammar….)

    • Piers Ford May 9, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

      Thank you for your comments, Martina. I think we are in agreement that Julie Andrews is a great artist who still has a lot to offer us musically – but her producers need to find a better format that suits the way her voice is today. There was no shortage of love in the audience. We just wanted more of her. Ticket prices will always be controversial – but in this case, they were astronomical. I hope you managed to enjoy the rest of your time in London!

  2. Janet Keating (nee Watson) May 9, 2010 at 9:11 pm #

    I was fortunate to accompany Julie Andrews on her tv show way back in the 1950’s. As ‘the Junior Chorale’ a few youngsters accompanied her performance of “Little Donkey”. on her evening show.She was a wonderful artist and I have always been so proud to say that I had shared her show with among others, Annigoni (the Queen’s then portrait painter) and wow – Marty Wilde! She has remained iconic in my book and of course we watched any performance possible.
    Knowing my love of her ( although we reside in South Africa), my son in the UK, booked tickets for the show for us as a Christmas present. we are pensioners and we were so excited at the prospect of seeing this lady again. However,the total cost to see this dismally disappointing show was £1,397, ie, £1,200 for 2 x air fares , £160 for show tickets, £12 for programme and £25 transport. What a costly affair. The first half the lady did not sing, except for a note of two and the second half of the show was a child’s concert sung mainly by ok singers, but not worth that expense.
    To put my disappointment into perspective, we have recently thoroughly enjoyed Tom Jones, Elton John and Andre Rui concerts in South Africa and previously watched Frank Sinatra when he was also a very old man, but put on a performance well worth the money.
    Where do we go from here – shrug the shoulders and ‘never again’ will be get caught out like that!
    I wonder if any other member of that Junior Chorale actually attended – I would like to hear from anyone in that respect.

    • Piers Ford May 9, 2010 at 9:40 pm #

      Janet, thanks for taking the time to comment and share your memories. I think producers of events like this fail to appreciate the fact that people will travel thousands of miles at great expense to see a great, much-loved performer and have perfectly reasonable expectations of what they will see. The thing is, I’m sure huge effort was expended in putting this show together. But it was expended in the wrong way and on a misguided format and for some of us at least, the result has been rather saddening. I guess we must look to the recordings – and DVDs – and hope that in the future, her advisers will urge a more appropriate show case for Julie Andrews and the voice she has today.

  3. Janet Keating (nee Watson) May 9, 2010 at 9:12 pm #

    all done

  4. Janet Keating (nee Watson) May 9, 2010 at 9:30 pm #

    As much as I loved this lovely lady in the past and she will always remain a lady, realistically the show was a rip-off. To a man, the audience ‘willed’ her to sing, but she simply cannot anymore. – Desparately frustrating for her,but sadly she has to stop this nonsense of putting on a singing show.

  5. Linda May 10, 2010 at 7:59 am #

    Such a shame to read that the evening didn’t live up to expectations – she’s such an icon, I wonder if our expectations could ever be met?

    • Piers Ford May 10, 2010 at 8:52 am #

      Probably not, Linda, but a loyal audience will always adjust its expectations to accommodate the changing vocal range of a loved star – look at Elaine Stritch, Julie Wilson, Annie Ross, Barbara Cook, even Debbie Reynolds who is currently wowing the West End with her one woman show. All of them are Andrews’ vintage and more. They’ve found more intimate formats that work for them, and I still feel she could do the same. But I suspect – as Janet suggests elsewhere – this show will have needlessly dented the esteem in which she is held.

  6. Mrs Spratt May 10, 2010 at 10:42 am #

    What a sensitive and spot-on review.Thanks!I too went to the Concert/show/appearance- and I adore Julie, but it was a disaster.Completely wrong Venue,wrong Content and an over-indulgent 2nd half ill-suited for a mature audience.Ms Andrews left the singing mainly to her supporting Quintet of nobodies.It was of course great seeing her & the audience went wild when she “sang” but the moments were few and far between.The whole evening sank in the 2nd half when we were treated to a musical adaptation of a book she and her daughter had penned- “Simeon’s Gift”.One hour of Purgatory. I was sitting next to a man who had paid more than £200 for his ticket and had flown in from Norway & was totally unaware of the programme -like most of us taking into account the very muted response to 95% of the show. V V disappointing.We know Julie’s voice is no more-she admitted it herself,but the programme could perhaps have been a journey through her remarkable career especially when punters have forked out big bucks.Recent press Interviews proclaimed she was “making her singing comback”.If she wanted to showcase “Simeon’s Gift” she should have played in a more intimate venue. This venue and ticket prices screamed of making a fast buck.It must have grossed a million.And that is just programmes alone-a hefty £12 for a 28 page effort cobbled together,3 pages of adverts,9 of credits.The programme boasted an evening with Julie Andrews and people paid to see Julie,not her supporting troupe.You really have to look at it simply,we didn’t expect a lot but got less than we bargained for,and at over £100 a ticket it was just not worth it.If the yanks lapped this up then I don’t know why this didn’t transfer across the Pond.Are Brits more discerning? Promoters Marshall Arts,Raymond Gubbay and O2 -you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.An ill-conceived pure money-making venture.

    • Piers Ford May 10, 2010 at 10:55 am #

      Thanks for your comments – feelings are understandably running very high, judging by some of the reports in today’s papers. I hope they will rethink the format for any future shows – it would be arrogant to ignore such a strong response from a very large and knowledgeable audience who really knew what they could expect from her voice and, having already taken that into acount, were looking forward to an evening of complementary substance. It’s a pity that Julie Andrews herself is taking so much flack – some of the critics should have done their research – but in the end, she agreed to the format and is billed as Director, so I’m afraid she and her advisers must carry much of the responsibility.

  7. Mrs Spratt May 11, 2010 at 1:13 pm #

    As for the public supposed to being aware of the content of the “show” my Saturday paper had a huge articel/interview with Ms A and the headline screamed”..why today I am finally able to make my singing comeback” which gave the impression that her voice had recovered a bit.The most annoying thing was that I nearly didn’t go th the show cos of palaver getting a ticket and now I wish I hadn’t cos it has tainted my adoration of Julie forever.

  8. Jenny June 11, 2010 at 7:48 am #

    A little late here, but I must say I’m SHOCKED to see that people didn’t like the concert at all and are disappointed. I went to the concert myself and was not disappointed AT ALL. I loved the music, the other singers, and of course most of all; seeing Julie Andrews live. She could have done anything on that stage, and I would be so pleased and happy to be able to see her live anyways. I also think she did a great job, and those of you who didn’t do any research before you went (most of you obviously) didn’t catch this: Julie has NEVER said that she would sing much throughout this concert, due to the condition of her voice. Blame the British press instead! It has been promoting the show as if Julie did the whole evening herself, and the other singers/actors aren’t even mentioned.

    Julie was GREAT!! I loved the show!

    • Piers Ford June 11, 2010 at 8:43 am #

      Thanks for your comments, Jenny, and it’s really great that you liked the concert. In fairness to most of the commenters here, I don’t think a lack of research was the main problem. As I said in my review, Julie herself was very careful to set expectations about her voice and there can be very few genuine fans who are unaware of what she has been through on that front. I think they just wanted more of her – and what they got in terms of singing certainly suggested that might have been possible with the right choice of material. As for the other performers – yes, they were fine and professional, but largely unknown in this country to all but the most dedicated followers of Broadway. I wonder if, with hindsight, it would have been better to involve some well known British guest artists. For me, the format just didn’t work. But once again, it’s good to hear from someone with a more positive viewpoint.

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