Last Updated on 18th May 2015
St James Studio
5 March 2015
Jerry Herman was, unquestionably, one of the great Broadway composers of the 20th Century and his work endures effortlessly. Some of his shows have been big hits (Mame, Hello Dolly, La Cage Aux Folles), some have struggled to be hits despite their cult status amongst aficionados (Mack and Mabel, Milk and Honey, Dear World) and some have been flops (Madame Aphrodite, The Grand Tour) when they just might have been ahead of their time. But they are all tied together by Herman’s rich, melodious scores and his clever, funny lyrics. And something else.
Herman’s scores all abound with that key factor. It’s his magic ingredient.
Now playing at the St James Studio, is Kate Golledge’s revival of Jerry’s Girls, the 1981 Revue conceived by Herman himself and Larry Alford which finally opened on Broadway in 1985 where it received a less than enthusiastic reception from the New York Times. The programme suggests that Wayne Cilento was somehow involved in the creation of, perhaps, this version of the Revue, but quite what that involvement was is not clear.
Golledge writes in the programme: “We wanted to return to the cabaret roots of this piece, to give each song space to exist both in and outside of its show context and to combine the skills of our incredible cast to create an evening that celebrates one of the most virtuosic composer/lyricists the Broadway stage has ever known in a deeply personal way.”
Quite right too.
The intimate, comfortable environs of the St James Studio make it an ideal space for cabaret experiences. The room itself is not warm, so it permits the artists to produce and provide the warmth. The acoustics are good and the audience can be wrapped in the music and the performances in a way that can be intoxicating, in a way that only cabaret or revue (they are not the same) permits.
Both the programme for this production and the original cast recording herald Jerry’s Girls as a revue, but Golledge’s treatment and presentation of the material here more suggests cabaret. Partly, that is because the cast is limited to three singers and two musicians (who moonlight as performers occasionally). There is nothing wrong with this approach; quite the contrary, it permits real focus on the music and lyrics.
Golledge ensures that the space is used in a variety of ways – songs commence out of sight, with the singer entering the auditorium and moving amongst the audience; others start on stage; some have singers in different places. The staging is fluid and economical, highlighting the variety of the material and allowing both moments of comic intensity and bravura emotion.
It can’t work without superb musical accompaniment and this production has a surfeit of excellence there. Edward Court, tall, earnest and young, provides assured musical direction and accompaniment from the piano; he plays sensitively and stylishly, producing sounds that bloom in support of the vocals. He sings a bit too and even has a guest tapping appearance. There is an eagerness to his contribution which is fundamentally endearing while also providing a tangible on-stage reminder of the spell Herman’s girls (those he created or wrote for) cast over mere men.
On Saxophone, Clarinet and Flute, the sensual and quite superb Sophie Byrne brings graceful support to Herman’s harmonies and melodies. This combination of instruments with piano might seem odd, but it works very well and underscores the notion that the music is being treated to a fresh, different treatment.
The show is a collation of some of the very best tunes Herman has written, together with snatches of information about his life and career. The balance between that information and the musical material seems slightly wrong in this incarnation of the work: there is not enough information to really sate the appetite or provide a coherent back story. Which is a shame.
However, the sequences that do provide the information are well done, especially the one about Herman’s meeting with Frank Loesser. There are two other moments which stand out: recordings of Carol Channing doing a speech from Hello Dolly! and of Angela Lansbury warmly talking about Herman. Both those moments stand out because of that killer Herman ingredient- heart. Channing and Lansbury have it in spades, and their renditions of Herman’s tunes are awash with it.
Ria Jones, one of the three stars of this version of Jerry’s Girls, also has heart in spades and she uses it, effortlessly and to great effect, to create involving, sometimes whimsical, sometimes thrilling, interpretations of Herman standards. She provided the three great solo moments of the evening – sardonic humour in her part of Take It All Off, spine-tingling possibility in Before The Parade Passes By and then crystal clear self-affirmation in a stirring I Am What I Am.
Jones is the real deal, a generous performer of true skill and intelligence. She has that impressive ability to summon up a mood, an atmosphere, with a simple turn of the head or a bittersweet smile. At the top of her range, Jones’ voice crackles with power and energy. When she hits the money note, the ripple of ecstasy is affecting and prolonged.
Her co-stars, Sarah-Louise Young and Anna-Jane Casey, are not in Jones’ league. Young is a nice actress and performer, and is particularly good at goofy or odd moments of comedy, but her vocal work is not secure enough for Herman’s music. Casey has a voice of ringing exactitude but it is too cold too often and the inner warmth of Herman’s work is not exposed in her snappy, fixed smile renditions of introspective or emotional numbers.
Together, or in pairs, the three women work very well. They have an easy rapport with each other and happily play off each other, producing a cosy sense of fun – particularly when playing with hapless audience members (much as wily cats do with dead mice; playfully, but in control) or the musicians. They manage good impressions of the famous women associated with Herman’s music and do full justice to Matthew Cole’s sprightly “Broadway” choreography. Casey is especially at home with the dancing and it at her best when her pins are in action.
There is some very odd costuming from Rebecca Gunstone, none of which seemed especially flattering for the three vocalists. It is difficult to see why simple and glamorous, with the prospect of the odd, added accoutrement for special effect, was not the order of the costume day.
But at the end of the day, the star here is Jerry Herman, his music and lyrics. It is a great joy to hear a (mostly) all female cast give life and voice to Herman’s treasure trove of tunes. If you want to have good fun, enjoy some superb musicianship, and remind yourself of a time when Broadway tunes routinely became a part of the fabric of life, this is an opportunity not to be let pass you by.
Jerry’s Girls runs until 15th March at St James Theatre Studio