Thursday, 1 November 2012

London Song Festival - Comedy Songs - review

Lighter, comic songs are frequently tricky for trained singers to bring off. Many were written for actors, rather than highly developed voices, and need quite careful and special handling. So Nigel Foster was giving his singers a challenge rather different do usual by launching this year's London Song Festival with a programme of English and American Comedy Songs. Soprano Laura Wolk-Lewanowicz and baritone Grant Doyle joined Foster at St Paul's Church Covent Garden on Wednesday 31 October. Foster's programme mixed English and American songs from the 20th and 21st centuries in thematic groups.


Both singers sang the entire programme from memory, neither wore quite conventionally formal concert gear. Both, as it turns out, are Australian though living in the UK. The opened with a duet, Comedy Tonight from Sondheim's A Funny Thing on the Way to the Forum, each displaying a good feel for the words, always necessary in Sondheim. Doyle in particular had a nice way of singing on the edge of his voice which works just right in this style of music; vocal over production can spoil things.

Throughout the programme both Doyle and Wolk-Lenwanowicz showed that they knew when to sing and when not to sing. And in most of the songs that they performed, the words were supremely important. We didn't have copies of the words in the programme and thankfully, didn't need them, both singers had excellent diction. But more than that, both knew how to use the words impressively and vividly.

The singers, and sometimes Foster, provided short linking introductions to the songs, creating a nice feeling of intimacy with the audience. A church is not an ideal venue for such a programme, but they made it work well.

Wolk-Lenwanowicz sang Sheldon Hannick's The Shape of Things from his 1956 Off-Broadway production, The Littlest Review. This was a quite conventionally written song, but one where the sting was in the words. Wolk-Lenwanowicz delivered it nicely dead-pan and got things just right.

Tom Lehrer's work is something I've been familiar with and loved since the 1970's, well before he became well known in this country. Doyle proved something of a natural in I got it from Agnes; Lehrer's words count for the most and the songs need just the simplest hint of melody.

Ado Annie's song I cain't say no from Rogers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma is far more familiar, but still a delight. In this style of music Wolk-Lenwanowicz is very much a soubrette rather than a belter, and she was delightfully entertaining in this song.

Doyle returned with more Tom Lehrer, The Masochism Tango, this time singing the song far more than I had heard before, and making it work very well indeed, complete with a very rp English accent.

The two joined together for The Saga of Jenny from Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's Lady in the Dark. It was nicely, done, rather straight and suitably funny. But I can't help feeling that this song goes better if you give it something. If you listen to Gertrude Lawrence's live recording of the song you realise that it needs an element of  'bump and grind' to come off really well.

Next a pair of rather nearer the edge English songs. Doyle got the suggestiveness and camp just right in Jeremy Nicholas's Camping Out. There was certainly no suggestiveness in Dillie Keane's Dogging, everything was uproariously direct, Wolk-Lenwanowicz was brilliantly outrageous here.

Wolk-Lenwanowicz was subtler in Donald Swann's The Passionate Trencherwoman, a delightful re-working of a 17th century style English song. And Doyle combined beautiful singing with brilliant story telling in Cole Porter's The Tale of the Oyster from Fifty Million Frenchmen.

Part one ended with Wolk-Lenwanowicz giving a brilliant rendition of William Bolcom's Lime Jello Marshmallo Cottage Cheese Surprise. Written, I think, for his wife Joan Morris and more recently taken up by Sarah Walker. It is hardly a song, more a recitation, and Wolk-Lenwanowicz got things just right and brought the house down.

Part two opened with the prologue to act 2 of Noel Coward's Operette. I have to confess that I don't know this piece and the performance, as a duet, didn't quite convince me of the naturalness of the performance but then Coward is notoriously difficult to bring off.

Wolk-Lenwanowicz was enjoyably back in Broadway territory for Dance: Ten; Looks: Three from A Chorus Line, a song which I know better by its tag line, Tits and Ass. Then joined by Doyle for a well judged, and not too over the top, rendition of Anything you can do from Irving Berlin's Annie get Your Gun.

I'm afraid that I remain uncertain about Flanders and Swann's Guide to Britten. There was something a little too smugly clever about the song, and there is a nasty undercurrent with jokes about Peter Pears and piles. But I can't fault Grant Doyle, whose performance captured the brilliance of what satire and wit the song has. Foster clearly relished the opportunity to gallop through quotation from many of Britten's works, and do fog horn impressions!

Another Jeremy Nicholas Song, this time sung by Wolk-Lenwanowicz with nice comic timing but perhaps the singer needed to sound a little more careworn (and may be just a tad more common)? Janine Tesori's The Girl in 14G was entirely new to me. Tesori is one of the current writers in American musical theatre, her credits include Shrek The Musical. This song turns on the singer having two noisy neighbours one an opera singer, the other a jazz singer. This gave Wolk-Lenwanowicz the chance to display some gloriously bad opera singing and be brilliantly split personality, flipping from one style to the other. A complete tour de force.

Doyle's consummate performance in Where is the life that late I led? from Cole Porter's Kiss me Kate, made me long for someone to snap him up for a full stage performance of this lovely piece. Beautifully sung, with just the right combination of words and music and a good feel for the shape and rhythms of the piece.

Zina Goldrich's Taylor the Latte Boy and Taylor's Response is a pair of songs about a young woman who falls in love with a boy from the coffee shop and his response when she turns into a stalker. Goldrich writes a song which sounds generically familiar, evoking the work of female singer songwriters. But by writing a pair of songs and developing the second, sung by Doyle, where the girl's behaviour is seen is scary, they produced something which was both entertaining and surprising. A lovely find.

Finally we had John Du Prez and Eric Idle's The Song that Goes Like This from Spamalot, the brilliant send-up of all the big finish songs in shows, brilliantly realised.

Throughout the programme Nigel Foster accompanied with subtlety and brilliance. The songs all varied in style enormously and he was adept at capturing the essence of what was needed. Both singers showed that they really understood how to put over this style of song and gave us a brilliant and entertaining evening.

The London Song Festival continues  throughout November with performances on Wednesday's at St. Paul's Covent Garden. Further details from the Festival website.

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