Helena Blackman sings “If I Loved You” live at The Kings Theatre, Portsmouth
Helena Blackman might have been the runner-up in the BBC’s 2005 quest to find a Maria for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revival of The Sound of Music. But as her debut album, The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein, reveals, she was never going to settle for perennial bridesmaid status.
The diversity of Blackman’s CV since her television talent show days is telling, and suggests that coming first is far from everything. Connie Fisher was such a quintessential Maria that she was the only possible winner – and consequently seems destined to play the role on the road forever. Similarly, it’s hard to see I’d Do Anything winner Jodie Prenger playing anything other than variations on her hearty Nancy, while runner-up Jessie Buckley has, like Blackman, developed a potentially stellar career as a singer and actor based on the breadth and variety of her talents.
That said, I must confess that I approached The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein with somewhat muted enthusiasm, simply because there are more than half a century’s worth of similar anthologies out there. Do we really need another one?
Well yes, it turns out that we do. Blackman’s producers, Neil Eckersley and Paul Spicer, and conductor Mike Dixon, have treated her to a substantial orchestra – much bigger than you’ll find in the average West End pit today. And yet the playing of Richard Rodgers’ soaring melodies is so restrained and sympathetic that the songs emerge as chamber pieces, clear and nuanced, with Blackman in commanding form as she traces their underlying emotional content with obvious pleasure, as if she’s discovering treasure in each line.
With a pure soprano voice that would easily straddle the divide between operetta and musical theatre, she’s something of a throwback to a golden age of pre-pop performers who knew all about lyrical interpretation and melodic lines.
At the same time, and supported here by some sharp, pared down arrangements, she’s quite capable of giving a refreshing twist to familiar material without resorting to contemporary vocal gimmicks. “What’s the Use of Wondrin’?” becomes an unexpectedly modern, gentle piece of introspection, for example, and the wistful “Love Look Away” is beautifully reinvented as a stately ballad, delivered with controlled power.
If the track list contains no real surprises, the real delight is to hear Hammerstein’s words and phrases delivered with such crystal eloquence. There are duets with Jonathan Ansell (“I Have Dreamed”) and Daniel Boys (a profoundly romantic “People Will Say We’re in Love”). The album is book-ended by numbers from The Sound of Music,“I Have Confidence” and that ripe, wise old anthem, “Climb Every Mountain” – perhaps not an obvious choice for a singer whose voice rings with youthful clarity but it’s an unbeatable show stopper to end on and Blackman proves herself more than equal to the task.
In between, other highlights include characterful stalwarts like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of my Hair”, “Some Enchanted Evening” and a splendid “The Gentleman is a Dope”.