Julian Eaves reviews Broadway’s Judy Kuhn appearing with Seth Rudetsky online as part of the Seth Concert Series.
The Seth Concert Series: Seth Rudetsky with Judy Kuhn
Sunday 20th and Monday 21st September online
‘The Best Is Yet to Come’ (Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh) was a lovely opener for this latest instalment of New York wise-guy, Seth Rudetsky and his latest Broadway siren, Judy Kuhn. Her brassy voice, with a throbbing beat in the chest betraying years of belting out show tunes, has a ruby warmth, dangerously teetering on the brink of losing control, and yet never quite doing that. Introduced as a ‘soprano’, she sounded pretty dark-mezzo here. Ah, but wait: along comes, ‘I Said No’ (Frank Loesser/Jule Styne), a cute waltz once given a fine treatment by Tommy Dorsey, but Judy sings it right back into its Edwardian drawing-room origins, with full soprano honours, complete with all the trills. Divine.
Even more demanding was Dick Rodgers’, ‘Hello, Young Lovers’ (lyrics, Oscar Hammerstein II), from ‘The King and I’: this received a pensive, wistful, almost smokey-voiced performance. Yet, the story-telling cut through the emotion; indeed, it almost seemed to be driving it, or even hurrying it along. And there was that beat, fluttering away in her middle register, too. Always the same vibrato. Well, you either like it, or you don’t. Some people don’t mind it. Others wish they could just hear the note that the composer wrote, and could happily do without those to either side of it.
The cruel thing about the human voice, though, is that it does not always do what you want it to. Have we not heard that truth – many times – told by a parade of other artists appearing in this very series? And in this ultra-exposed format, if something – anything at all – doesn’t go right with the guest’s vocal equipment, then there’s nothing to disguise it. Nothing at all. On such occasions, we seem to have noticed Seth ditching his customary breezy banter, and growing kinder and gentler by the minute. The more trouble that afflicts his guest, the nicer he becomes. It is almost as if he can psychically ‘hear’ the singer signalling, ‘I’m having difficulties: HELP ME GET THROUGH THIS!’ And he does everything he can to do just that. This show turned out to be an example of how such a strategy works: and succeeds.
When you have classical training, you can do great things in a theatre with a band and a lot of resonance in a roomy acoustic. But put the same voice in a living room with a single microphone, then a different effect is created. Thus, with ‘Blame It On The Summer Night’ from ‘Rags’ (Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz), we got some clever microphone technique singing, interleaved with a lot of ‘let-it-resonate-to-the-back-of-the-balcony’ well-supported chest voice. In the theatre, it would be wonderful: in cabaret, possibly it’s a shade over-whelming. There are singers who can maintain their voice through decades of a successful career and are not disconcerted by having to make it do very tricky things; and then there are slightly less superhuman vocalists who have to suffer habits, mannerisms, even damage creeping into their voice. Faced with such a challenge, a singer can either change their repertoire, or just stand firm and carry on delivering what the fans expect, and pray that the wear-and-tear of time doesn’t draw too much attention to itself.
Promoters, agents persuade such singers to continue their careers, insisting that the die-hard fans won’t care what kind of shape their voice is in, they’ll just be thrilled to see them alive on stage, actually performing – and the uninformed newcomer won’t know what has been lost, what is missing. And there is money to be made going that route: and one must make money. Or, more simply, one must perform. (In its extremest form, this is ‘The Antonia Complex’, for those of you who know the third act of ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’.) Whatever was the case on this occasion, there were quite a few ad hoc coughs and throat clearings thrown in discreetly, and a few much-needed draughts of cooling water. Maybe she was just having a less than perfect day. It happens.
Meanwhile, Kuhn tells a good anecdote, and we got a fair few, trading little secrets from the backstages of American musical theatre, which then brought us into a really exposed, vulnerable and emotionally involving number like, ‘Someone Else’s Story’ (Andersson, Ulvaeus, Rice) from ‘Chess’. This also provided, serendipitously, an apt commentary on this kind of journey. Indeed, even stranger, it turns out the song was written for her. Well, she certainly sings it like no one else can, I suspect. Rather like her treatment of Pocahontas’, ‘The Colors of the Wind’ (Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz): this is where Kuhn utterly gives the lie to her 62 years – in this material, her voice sounds so much younger, so flexible and innocent, yet forthright and determined. It’s utterly delightful. And so was, ‘Ring of Keys’, from ‘Fun Home’ (Lisa Kron, Jeanine Tesori). This is ideal territory for her, giving free reign to the parlando, conversational style of narrative for which her voice right now is marvellously suited, splashed with bursts of fuller belt and the occasional glitter of a precious top note.
Segue into Sondheim’s, ‘Anyone Can Whistle’, a song that Kuhn turns into gold. ‘There’ll be more Sondheim in this lady’s life,’ said Seth. And he is right. Then they swung into ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick) to do a duet of ‘Do You Love Me?’, really sweetly and thoughtfully. ‘A scene in music’, as Seth summarised. And so to the conclusion. It was a number from ‘She Loves Me’ (more Bock and Harnick): ‘Vanilla Ice Cream’. This took us back to her light operetta soubrette rep. It was a jolly finish, and shot out of sight with a brilliant top B. Seth remained charming as ever, declaring it their first ‘disaster-free’ concert. Well, maybe there were no actual disasters, but there were a few dodgy bumps. There was also astonishing professionalism that got this superbly gifted pair – and us – over them.