Julie Madly Deeply
The Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zedel
‘Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?’
Most of us can remember what we were doing on Millenium Eve, or at least we can remember where we were at the start of the evening until alcohol, exhilaration, exhaustion or (in)discretion served to draw down the curtains of memory. At that point in my life I was running a large student residence with a staggeringly diverse range of nationalities under one roof. When the last firework had sputtered out there came a moment for community singing, and I was at a loss to know what materials might bind everyone together. A voice suddenly warbled improbably, ‘The Hills are Alive’, found a matching response, ‘With the Sound of Music’, and the next half hour vanished in a spontaneous collective joyous sing-along in which Korea and Karachi and Katmandu joined hands with Charleston, Copenhagen and Copacabana in a shared South Bank celebration of the unique phenomenon that is Julie Andrews….
I wonder sometimes, therefore, whether Dame Julie and Rodgers and Hammerstein deserve a shared Nobel Peace Prize rather more than some of the long forgotten actual recipients, such is the global brand recognition of The Sound of Music.
Michael Roulston and Sarah-Louise Young are both seasoned cabaret performers with many separate accolades and at least two disks to their names; but I wonder whether even they could have predicted quite how Julie Andrews has taken over their lives since this show began at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013. Such was its success that a season at Trafalgar Studies and a UK and North American tour have all followed. Fortunately their brief residency back in London does not now require them or their audience to climb another mountain or ford another stream beyond the confines of The Crazy Coqs, one of the most congenial cabaret venues in the centre of town.
The show lasts some ninety minutes and falls into two halves, the first taking Julie Andrews up to the verge of The Sound of Music and the second moving us from Salzburg to Hollywood and then finally on to her latest and sadly silent years. What impresses immediately is the care of construction that has gone into the show. Young is not only fully on top of the song-list, as one would expect, but she has also mastered the (auto)biographical literature and mythology surrounding her subject, and recounts the tale with just the right blend of full-on fandom and gently ribbing, wry scepticism.
There are plentiful possible pitfalls that could derail the show at many points: how do you catch the spirit of a still-living performer, and ‘hold a moonbeam in your hand’? Both artists deserve great credit for largely steering around and through the main shoals and rocks.
First of all everyone thinks they know Julie Andrews and her output: you have to give people the songs they love, while also guiding them through the many less well known shows and numbers, especially from the 1950s and 60s, when Andrews was at her hard-working peak. Young breaks down the fourth wall early on and craftily promises sing-along opportunities and audience participation while keeping a very firm control over things especially in the mainly expository first half.
There is not scope even in a ninety-minute show for the delivery of many of the full-length songs with all their verses and reprises, so a lot depends on careful referencing. Roulston and Young know they largely have audiences here who can pick up quickly on cues. It is enough to throw in a sung line or two here or a riff and chord sequence there to give the savour and memory of a famous number. This is then seamlessly blended into a continuous patter of memory, scandal and story so that we move through the decades from The Boyfriend to Victor Victoria at a cracking, sometimes breathless, pace.
With the famous blonde wig, and a few effective costumes Young really looks the part, and glides easily from giddy fan and commentator through to child prodigy and fully twinkling star with grace and self-confident poise. Crucially, she never forgets that with Julie Andrews it only ever took ONE spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down: there is rightly as much emphasis on her hard work and unsparing professional toughness as on the sprightly sentimentality of much of her material. Her voice is also fully equal to reproducing the bright, precise, technical bravura of Andrews’ four-octave wide delivery. At points she also found a greater warmth than I remember in the originals.
Quite apart from his technical skills as an arranger and performer, Michael Roulston is a chameleon of the keyboard who adjusts his style effortlessly to the needs of his singing partners. I have seen him now perform live with three or four different vocalists, and if one was just listening to a tape one would assume there was a separate pianist on each occasion. Here he often provides a simple but effective chordal underlay for the part-sung, part-spoken delivery above; but in the full-dress numbers he unveils both a fully orchestral palette of sound and those tight, biting, rhythmic anticipations that even in the sweetest and slightest songs set the high technical bar that Andrews always demanded of herself.
It seems churlish to ask for more when there is so much on offer already, but I came away thinking that this would be an even better show if it were a little longer and had more room to take breath. Both My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins get fairly short musical shrift in the densely packed first half, as does Victor Victoria in the second. I longed to hear more material from all of them in the sensitive and witty hands of these performers. Whatever one thinks of The Sound of Music these shows are the acme of Andrews’ career. They contain performances that not only made and re-made her name but defined the reputation of the shows themselves. There would also be more comic opportunities for Young to develop her delightful impersonations of Audrey Hepburn, Barbra Streisand and Liza Minelli, and perhaps add in a few other friendly rivals too…
This is an immensely polished, professional and stylish evening which marks another example of how contemporary cabaret is still exploring and pushing at the boundaries of how to best combine words and music. Roulston and Young capture the wholesome fun and charm of Andrews’ persona while also telling us a great deal about the awesome, even alarming professional dedication and self-fashioning that went into the forging of an icon. It is a fine yet fair tribute to a singer whose work has been both overrated and underrated at different points in her career. I would like to think that Dame Julie, eighty-years young this year, would enjoy it, if she ever slips in one night during one of its many likely revivals.
..And, by the way, we all had another truly international sing-along at the end!