Archive | November, 2010

CD Review – Julie Atherton: No Space for Air

16 Nov

Julie Atherton: a rocking live performance of “Blind” from her new album, No Space for Air

A closer look at Julie Atherton’s new album in a second. But first… Producers of the mooted 2011 London Follies revival apparently don’t think Bernadette Peters is sufficiently “box office” to carry a production on this side of the Atlantic. So murmurs the rumour mill. Ye gods. Here is one of the great leading ladies of our time – sure, a superstar on Broadway, but also a performer whose status and reputation is global as far as anybody who knows anything about musical theatre is concerned. And she is a luminary among actors who have specialised in Sondheim. You can’t buy the kind of gold dust she would sprinkle across the West End.

Never mind. Let’s wait 10 years. Then Dannii Minogue can give us her Sally, Cheryl Cole can step up to the plate as Phyllis, Susan Boyle’s “Broadway Baby” can raise the roof and Amanda Holden can summon her acting skills to deliver “I’m Still Here” with all the dramatic irony she can muster. And we’ll have the television audience-friendly Follies we apparently deserve. I can hardly wait. So I’ll probably curb my impatience with a trip to Washington DC in the spring, where Peters is scheduled to be a fascinating Sally, and Elaine Page will appear as Carlotta Campion, US producers apparently still being able to think outside the box just a little.

No Space for Air: a fascinating collection of modern pop and theatre songs

Julie Atherton will be a prime candidate to play Sally if there’s a revival to mark Sondheim’s centenary in 2030 – although she’d better make sure she’s got a television profile by then or she’ll have a tough job convincing the impresarios of the future.

Atherton is one of a handful of young West End leading ladies who composers would have been queuing up to write parts for in the old days. She’s a veteran of the cult hit Avenue Q and in the age of juke box musical dominance, through her involvement with the Notes From New York project, she consistently does her bit to promote new musical work in London.

When I saw her in their production of Jason Robert Brown’s chamber piece The Last Five Years last summer, it was clear that she was the genuine article: an actor with the instinctive ability to interpret lyrics in character so that they become part of the dialogue. Even so, I approached her new album, No Space For Air, with some trepidation. Musical actors ‘doing’ pop can be wince-inducing; I refer you to some of John Barrowman’s big finale numbers on the BBC’s Tonight’s the Night.

But Julie Atherton rocks. This modern, thoughtful collection of songs – produced with obvious attention to detail – is provactive and inspiring by turns. There are a couple of theatrical numbers: the tricky tale of “Lost in Translations” from Craig Adams’s Lift; and the most radical reworking of Sondheim’s Follies torch song “Losing My Mind” since Liza Minnelli’s 1989 electric disco collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys. But the bulk of the material is from the pens of edgy, contemporary songwriters like Mark Tremonti (“Broken Wings”) and Jake Hook (“Silent Whispers”).

Atherton is well served by arranger and pianist Craig Adams, with a string quartet adding some evocative accents to the pristine sound of the band. She launches into the opening track, “Weak”, with a cross between Emmylou Harris’s crystalline soprano and the finer emotive qualities of Celine Dion, sweet, country-flavoured tones shot through with moments of controlled power. The effect is exhilarating.

“Crawling” matches anything else on offer from the current clutch of young female artists. Atherton’s ability to inhabit a song and tell its story with emotional conviction but none of the artifice that so many singers rely on – let’s call it the curse of X Factor – is refreshing. She switches in a breath from subtle and gentle (“Never Saw Blue Like That”) to quirky and vulnerable (Tori Amos’s “Leather”).

The title of “Encore”, technically the last track on the album, raises the prospect of theatrical resonance but turns all such expectations on their head with a soaring exhortation to live in the present. But leave the disk on the player for a hidden treat: Atherton’s poignant take on the John Denver classic “Annie’s Song”.

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CD Review: Home – Rosie Nimmo

13 Nov

Timeclock: Rosie Nimmo’s unsettling exploration of life’s rapid pace

Home: the follow-up to Rosie Nimmo's first album, Lazy and Mellow

Mid-November, with a gale flinging the leaves against the window and a darkening sky that seems to promise eternal winter: it’s the perfect time to be listening to Home, a second album from Edinburgh singer Rosie Nimmo.

Not because Nimmo’s lyrics are relentlessly bleak and introspective – although they have their moments – but because despite a sheen of melancholy, little beacons of hope, comfort and warm humanity flicker across her complex vision of life’s travails. Just when you think the darkness is closing in for good, there’s a nip of something strong and reviving to pick you up and give you a wry laugh.

“The secret’s to enjoy the view

If you can enjoy the people too,”

Nimmo sings with cool irony in the opening track, “Never go Back”. And there’s the rub, of course, because it’s people who tend to get in the way. Nature can be a more rewarding companion. Songs like “Moonglow Music” and the title track are like little oases in a landscape of experience that in other numbers – the desolate “Life Can Pin You to the Wall” and “Low Blue Way” with its aching harmonica (a Nimmo speciality) – is often obscured by mist.

Rosie Nimmo in concert at Queen's Hall, Edinburgh (Picture by Marc Marnie)

“The End” is a frank and simple account of leaving things too late in a relationship. Perhaps, as Nimmo suggests in “Listen to Your Own Voice”, it’s ultimately best to be accountable to your own instincts. That way lies inner strength.

This is a wise collection of songs that faces up to some rough realities, not least in the unsettling, driven “Timeclock”, a sensory exploration of life’s rapid passage that really works its way under your skin. But there are moments of joy in the infantile escapism of “Being a Child Again (in the Snow)”, and even the sad tale of “Little Bird” ends on a note of fragile hope.

Nimmo’s style veers between soft, gentle folk and an edgier, almost bluesy quality that keeps you guessing where the mood will lead her. There is some exemplary, unfussy accompaniment from, among others, producer Marc (Hobotalk) Pilley on guitar, keyboard player Ali Petrie (the much-neglected Hammon organ comes into its own on several tracks) and fiddler Mairi Campbell.

Subtle, understated and sure-footed, Home is an intelligent, rewarding piece of work full of quirky hooks and rhymes that send your thoughts spinning off in all kinds of unexpected directions.

Theatre review: Mari Wilson in The Love Thing, Leicester Square Theatre (The Lounge), 6th November 2010

7 Nov

Hits and Misses: from Mari Wilson’s album, Emotional Glamour, which provides much of the musical content for The Love Thing

Dolled Up: Mari Wilson's 2005 album includes the song that gives The Love Thing its name

Never underestimate the power of a few sequins. Romantically bruised, regularly disappointed, ever nostalgic for the music and promise of her youth, never giving up on her quest for stardom, and with an eternally optimistic soul that eventually drives her to modest personal triumph, backing singer Elle has spent most of her professional life waiting for that big break backstage in stinky shared dressing rooms. And when she isn’t waiting backstage, she’s waiting at home for the selfish, feckless bloke who’s never too busy ploughing his own furrow to erode her fading dreams a little bit more. But she is never short of a brave aphorism – or a sprinkling of sequins – to see her through.

Elle is the creation of Mari Wilson, brought to life in a new one-woman musical – The Love Thing – which she has developed with Pete Lawson and features a clutch of beautifully crafted songs written with composer, pianist, arranger and frankly, girl singer’s ideal accompanist, Adrian York. It isn’t an autobiography but the show is largely inspired Wilson’s experiences as a woman and a singer across three decades of show business. And as a result, the character of Elle rings with authenticity.

From a 1960s childhood singing along to Dusty and Dionne – her ‘babysitters’ on the radio – with a hairbrush for a mic and her mum’s sling-backs for a touch of grown-up glamour, she takes us on a journey through the exotic 1980s, and on to the present day. Along the way, she encounters failure (her nearly-hit single bombs; she should’ve gone to the Caribbean and done those sessions with Chris de Burgh after all), serial betrayal, and late, unexpected motherhood. She lays the ghost of her old relationship, and finally meets a man who might, possibly, make her happy. But crucially, she returns to singing and, on her own terms, earns her place in the spotlight – and, albeit still reeking, dressing room. No matter that it’s at the back of a south London pub. It’s a downmarket, refreshingly anti-X Factor affirmation of a long career spent mainly in the wings. And it’s a testimony to Elle’s resilience, her worldly irony and robust humour.

Emotional Glamour: beautifully crafted pop songs written with Adrian York

Mari Wilson never settled for life as a backing singer, of course. She was a big 1980s star and continues to be a very successful artist. But her observations, memories and intimate knowledge of that era – and the highs and conflicts of a singer’s professional and personal life – are central to her portrayal of Elle, and the sympathy with which she plays the role, revealing considerable acting skills in the process.

This is a story told as an hour-long monologue, peppered with asides and re-lived telephone conversations, and interspersed with songs drawn from Wilson’s 2005 concept album Dolled Up (listening to “The Love Thing” sung live in the show, it seems ridiculous that the song wasn’t a huge hit at the time) and the 2008 follow-up Emotional Glamour. They are eloquent, state-of-mind numbers with a clarity of lyric and an emotional tug that pitches Elle’s situation perfectly through a series of scenes. Salt-of-the-earth observations – “Moving In”, with its hints of new beginnings, opens with the disarmingly mundane observation that “Your pants are on the floor” – give way to the darker, torchier sentiments of “Right For You”. “Forever Young” is a fight-back anthem for a generation of women reared on airbrushed celebrity preserved in anti-ageing serum. And “Getting There” is a frank, sophisticated ballad of recovery and survival.

Vocally, Wilson is at the top of her game. In the cramped intimacy (seat behind a concrete pillar, anyone?) of the Lounge in the bowels of the Leicester Square Theatre, she reaffirms her talent as an instinctive interpreter of lyrics, shifting moods in the flick of a very long eyelash and using the limited space to conjure a three-dimensional character with a light touch on the drama.

With their pared down arrangements – and the brilliant York on the piano, contributing sensitive backing vocals and throwing in a cheeky riff from one of Wilson’s 1980s hits, “Just What I Always Wanted” – these pithy pop songs easily make the transition to integrated show tunes. Any small quibbles mainly concern the structure of the piece: the scenes could be more clearly defined, for example, with a stronger sense of the time in which they are set. But at just an hour long, The Love Thing is warm, credible, often very touching and full of potential. Hopefully, this week long engagement has just been the start for a tour de force that showcases the wider talents of one of our best singers in peak form.

Book Review – Patti LuPone: A Memoir

3 Nov

Being Alive: Patti LuPone sings up a storm with a Sondheim classic

In a recent interview for Cabaret Confessional, I was asked some searching questions about my interest in torch singers and in response came up with a phrase – “The ‘bruised’ type of lady singer” – that has been flitting around my mind ever since. I think it sums up what I’m listening for or responding to in a woman’s singing voice, regardless of where she sits in the spectrum of musical styles and genres.

Patti LuPone's new memoir: bruising tales of backstage life

When it comes to representatives from the musical theatre faction, there’s no doubt that Patti LuPone fits the bill on many levels. She is a genuine Broadway Diva. OK, that’s often a carelessly and over used term but LuPone’s qualifications speak for themselves: Broadway’s first Evita; the original musical Norma Desmond; the West End’s first Fantine – that small but pivotal role in Les Misérables, which gave us the immortal “I Dreamed a Dream”; a triumphant Reno Sweeney; and relatively late in a career that’s still going strong after four decades, an acclaimed interpreter of Sondheim’s music and lyrics in a series of revivals that have included Sweeney Todd (Mrs Lovett) and a Tony Award-winning turn as Rose in Gypsy. She has also made some fine albums that endorse her torch-singing credentials, particularly Matters of the Heart (1999) and The Lady With the Torch (2008).

But as she reveals in her new autobiography, Patti LuPone: A Memoir, many of those experiences have been bruising, and one or two left scars that that have yet to heal properly. There is much more to LuPone than her musical career, and if anything, the sections of the book that relate the development of her craft, her association with David Mamet and her life as a working actor, are the most objective, resonant and thoughtful passages. Musical theatre is always fraught. The slings and arrows are so damned personal. Even with Evita, to all outward appearances a career highpoint, LuPone has battles to fight, takes some vicious critical hits and suffers the ravages of vocal damage.

But musical aficionados will skip straight to the lengthy chapters detailing how she won – and, as things turned out, survived – the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. They won’t be disappointed because she tells her side of the story with hard-eyed, revenge-served-cold clarity.

And what a tale of a leading lady scorned it is. From the moment the casting decision is made, she is undermined and threatened by a swirl of media rumours, receives no support from her producers and is handled by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a bumbling incompetence that contrasts rather starkly with the paternal image he has cultivated towards his would-be stars in BBC talent shows like How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and Over the Rainbow. He will not be flattered by this portrait. Even at this distance in time, LuPone’s disdain is chillingly palpable. Tellingly, Glenn Close, the actress who eventually played Norma on Broadway after the smoke and mirrors had done their work, doesn’t escape a well-aimed swipe from LuPone’s primed paw either.

There is no reason to doubt her account of events – presumably it was well vetted by the lawyers before it went near the printing press. So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that she was anything other than betrayed by a composer whose show could only benefit from the rumour-stirred publicity, but who wasn’t brave or courteous enough to tell the woman at the heart of the storm what was really going on. This is one of the juiciest back-stage tales in the history of modern musical theatre. Like so many other episodes in LuPone’s memoir, it offers a salutary lesson in the importance of good agents and hard negotiation. And of holding out for a decent settlement. Which, satisfyingly, is how The Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Swimming Pool came about in LuPone’s back garden.

I Dreamed a Dream: not the Susan Boyle version

LuPone is clearly a formidable personality, one forged in the fires of her early, post-Juilliard days as a touring actress, and toughened by traumatic stints in failed musicals (The Baker’s Wife was one such trial but at least it gave her a signature song in “Meadowlark”). I interviewed her once, briefly, on the telephone for an article on the skill of singing Sondheim. She was brisk, helpful and businesslike, juggling our conversation with a consultation with her web master at her Connecticut home, and presumably had one eye on the clock, as she was due in town for that evening’s performance of Gypsy. Warm pleasantries were hardly the order of the day. And that’s pretty much the impression that emerges from these pages. Fools are not suffered. Cantankerous co-stars – Topol in The Baker’s Wife and later, Bill Smitrovich in the long running television show Life Goes On – are handed the Lloyd Webber treatment. The chorus and dancers on Anything Goes are stingingly rebuked as a group of “C-team players” who “approached their roles in the show with a tremendous sense of entitlement and little sense of responsibility”. At the same time, some burnt bridges are restored. A seemingly terminal rupture between LuPone and the legendary librettist Arthur Laurents is touchingly healed when she approaches him about playing Rose in Gipsy.

LuPone makes some percipient observations about professional behaviour and expectations. But she has acquired a reputation for a certain imperiousness over the years and there are also moments when, pleasingly, her inner Diva breaks through. She doesn’t bother with excuses. Ensemble duties on Les Misérables are not for her, she decides, and one day she gets back to her dressing room after expiring as Fantine, kicks off her shoes and switches off the stage speakers, committing the unforgivable actor’s sin of missing her cue.

References to her close family and the occasional co-worker aside, genuine professional warmth emerges most poignantly at the end of the book when LuPone finally gets to play some of Sondheim’s most notable leading ladies. Why did it take so long? She had regularly included his songs in her concert and recording repertoire – her scorching “Being Alive” had become another signature number – but had never been given a sniff at an actual role. Quite simply, it seems that producers didn’t really consider her a ‘Sondheim’ actor.

So when she was first asked to play Mrs Lovett in a concert production of Sweeney Todd, the casting choice came out of left field. “It just wasn’t a part my name would normally be associated with,” she writes. And yet through this initially surprising offer, and a five-year programme of Sondheim productions initiated by Welz Kauffman at the Ravinia Festival, LuPone perhaps finds her ultimate destiny as a musical actress. Her Rose is lauded on Broadway, even by critics who had been the bane of her life, and there is a real sense of music and character combining and being channelled by the actor in a moment of professional completeness.

This is a must-read memoir for anyone who wants to understand better what drives a performer, and an astringent insight into the backstage machinations that are intrinsic to an entertainer’s life. Patti LuPone has certainly earned those bruises but these days, you sense she could hold her own against pretty much anyone.