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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.

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Concert Review: Baby Dee and the Elysian Quartet, Shoreditch Church, 16th October 2010

20 Oct

“Black But Comely”: a song of doomed, elemental passion

A Book of Songs for Anne Marie formed the basis for the concert at Shoreditch Church

Baby Dee had already shambled on stage and struck up the first chords of a song about slugs in Shoreditch Church, late on Saturday night, before the audience became fully aware of her presence and let out a welcoming cheer. She turned and smiled over her shoulder with a knowing, ‘this is me, folks’ shrug and launched into one of her characteristically poetic, impressionistic lyrics, accompanied by her own sublime piano playing, sending the notes soaring up into the lofty shadows of the church ceiling.

Wrapped in a capacious coat with dalmatian spotted leggings underneath and something that resembled nothing so much as a red tea cosy on top, she cut a singular dash. Dee could have been an eccentric aunt who had simply wandered in from Shoreditch High Street, put down her shopping and absent-mindedly started tinkling the ivories.

Appearances are deceptive. This avant-garde transexual creator and singer of art songs – a one-time Coney Island performance artist and organist for a Catholic church in the Bronx – might indeed be eccentric. But there is nothing chaotic about her musicianship – she is a classically trained pianist and harpist – or the extraordinary instrument that is her voice: a resonant tenor that occasionally rises in a counter screech or descends into a filthy, cackling vibrato rasp.

Songs about insects feature large in her repertoire – the evening would end with a paean to bees – but the slugs, it transpired, were just the hors d’oeuvre to the main feast: a set largely based on Baby Dee’s mesmerising album, A Book of Songs for Anne Marie, for which she was joined by the assuredly ethereal strings of the Elysian Quartet, an oboist, and a guest cellist whose name, alas, I couldn’t catch because Dee’s spasmodic inter-song links were so sotto voce that the sound system didn’t pick them up.

The concert (a Frieze Music event), played out in front of the alter against a backdrop of flickering candles and beneath strings of  fairy lights, had a hypnotic beauty.

Dee’s free-ranging ballads are eerily, deceptively delicate. Snatches work their way under your skin and re-emerge in dreams, balmy yet ominous. “Love’s Small Song”, for example, is the sort of thing you might expect to hear on the wind if you ever found yourself wondering the passages of an Elizabethan palace in the dead of night. “Black But Comely”, brimming with doomed elemental passion, is, like so many of Dee’s numbers, a torch-song of masochistic brilliance.

“I am less the writer of these songs than I am their unfit mother,” she writes in the album notes, hinting at the weight of experience from which they poured. The lyrics are vital to understanding her work but were ill-served by the venue’s acoustics on this occasion, at least for those of us at the back of the hall. Even so, their dark, brooding preoccupation with loss and ruin, studded with flashes of celestial hope and references to nature and the seasons, provided a compelling leitmotif.

The playing was sublime. Dee herself ambled between piano and harp – creating moments of broad comedy defined by some jaunty ‘travelling music’ courtesy of the Quartet – playing each with an absorbing delicacy. But perhaps the most exquisite moment of the evening was when she descended from the stage for a yearning accordion solo, gazing up into a spotlight: defiantly unclassifiable, away with the fairies, but a mesmerising class act.

CD Review: Dolores Scozzesi – A Special Taste

17 Sep

The blues are just torch-songs: Dolores Scozzesi in performance

Dolores Scozzesi: there's nothing like discovering a new voice

There is one good thing about returning from holiday: a healthy pile of CDs for review has accumulated during the summer, promising plenty of interest to lighten the darkening autumn evenings. An even better thing is when you pick one, randomly, from the pile, put it on and out of nowhere, a new voice stops you in your tracks.

After all these years of listening, and not to sound too blasé about it, the “Wow” factor needs to be pretty strong to have that kind of effect. And it really has to be something different. So thank you, Dolores Scozzesi, for working a little magic as the last dregs of summer evaporate.

A Special Taste appears to be New York-born Scozzesi’s first album – and it’s long overdue, given her credentials: Lee Strasberg Institute alumna, one-time voice student of Phil Moore, improv specialist who has performed alongside Robin Williams and Jay Leno, former ex-pat resident of Lyon who has toured Europe with her own jazz troupe, and singular cabaret performer who has ripped up Sondheim and Sting to great acclaim on the West Coast.

It’s the voice that grabs you to begin with. A rich contralto with edge, snapping from molten serenity to a predatory growl in a single phrase, and a timbre that makes you want to place your hands on the speakers just so you can capture something of its individuality. She switches easily between the ominous (“Stay Out of the Moonlight” is a glorious don’t-do-as-I-did word to the wise) and the edgy. “Jazz is a Special Taste” is a stop/start exploration of the allure of the genre to which Scozzesi has loosely hitched her star.

I say ‘loosely’ only because throughout the album, she seems to be daring the listener to put her in a specific box. The phrasing sounds so spontaneous that I doubt any two live performances of a song are ever exactly the same, in the great tradition of artists like Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. And as with those greats, the story telling is commanding. You have no choice but to listen. The arrangements by Eli Brueggemann and Gary Fukishima give her the ideal springboard to create these vivid word pictures.

Then there is the choice of songs. Standards from Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh (it’s a long time since I heard anyone treat “You Fascinate Me So” with such dry wit) and Fred Ahler and Joe Young (“I’m Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”) have strange but fascinating bedfellows in a pair of Bob Dylan numbers, an astringent take on “One More Cup of Coffee” and a moving, bossa nova treatment of “Just Like a Woman”.

I don’t know what the Dylan purists will have to say about that, but as a late comer to the Dylan lyrics appreciation society myself (I’m no lover of his voice, and that’s been something of a barrier to enjoying his work), I’m fascinated by the endless reinvention that he attracts these day, particularly from female vocalists. Long may it continue.

Scozzesi’s liner notes shed significant light on the final number on the disk, an acoustic treatment of “Autumn Leaves”, melding Johnny Mercer’s English lyrics with the original French words of Jacques Prevert and culminating in a self-penned vocalese tribute to her late husband, dark, raw and touching. This is an album to be enjoyed in discerning company, with firelight and good wine.

Great Cabaret Blogs; Barb Jungr’s BBC Breakfast Interview Finally Online; and Mari Wilson Singing Sweetly in LA

16 Aug

Barb Jungr serves a breakfast treat with a “Wichita Lineman” to remember

During the last few weeks I’ve been introduced to some great female singer- and cabaret-related blogs around the world. They’re all on my blog roll but I’d like to introduce them properly to Art of the Torch Singer readers.

Cabaret Confessional is a great global resource, currently posting daily about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and eagerly anticipating Barb Jungr’s upcoming Australian tour (as well as her Edinburgh appearances this week).

CabaretDC is Michael Miyazaki’s excellent blog about all things cabaret in the Washington area – clearly a fertile hunting ground for the genre – and more widely across the Eastern states. This is an indispensible blog for anyone who is passionate about the art of cabaret, written by someone who clearly lives and breathes the subject. There is a great interview archive, Diva 5+1, which includes – naturally – Barb Jungr, Ute Lemper and Liz Callaway, among many others.

New York-based Stu Hamstra’s Cabaret Hotline Online is another must-read blog, packed with news about the global cabaret scene, reviews and articles written by a man who must also have a passion for the genre in his DNA.

Finally, Girl Singers is journalist Doug Boynton’s wonderfully eclectic, informed reviews blog, in which he wonders freely across the landscape of contemporary female artists and introduces their work with great context and cross-references.

Speaking of Barb Jungr – which I frequently do, and make no apologies for that – it’s great to see her insightful interview with BBC Breakfast, from March 2010, finally online. Watch how she kicks the “covers” argument out of court – and delivers an a capella “Wichita Lineman” to entranced presenters Bill and Sian that is simply a great moment of live, artifice-free performance.

Getting There: Mari Wilson singing sweeter than ever at the Wrecking View movie benefit in California

Mari Wilson’s recent appearance singing at the Wrecking View movie benefit was a great warm-up for her upcoming Hollywood gig at Cabaret at the Castle on 22nd August. Lucky California, to get the chance to see and hear how one of our finest song stylists – and Neasden’s greatest export –  just keeps getting better. British fans will be able to catch up with Mari when she brings her one-woman musical The Love Thing to the Leicester Square Theatre in November.