Last Updated on 2nd September 2020
Julian Eaves reviews Sierra Boggess appearing as part of Seth Rudetsky’s online concert series.
The Seth Rudetsky Concert Series : with Sierra Boggess and Seth Rudetsky
The other day, I was reflecting upon the extraordinary quality of this series of chatshow-cabarets and found myself wondering whether the host, the extraordinary pianist, musical director and presenter, Seth Rudetsky, would be able to sustain such a run of top-drawer events indefinitely. Well, in this most recent of his shows, Mr Rudetsky provided us with the answer.
I have long wondered where the world’s fascination with Sierra Boggess came from. I have only seen her in the filmed staging of ‘Love Never Dies’, and it’s really not possible to make judgements about an artist from a single performance. This cabaret, however, offered us a broader taster of her skills. She opened with Richard Rodger’s ‘I Have Confidence’ that he wrote as a vehicle for the talents of Julie Andrews for the film of ‘The Sound of Music’. It was a decent enough performance, and she followed it with a brisk waltz patter song, where her articulation was perhaps less secure – but one might put that down to technical problems with the sound. Then came another triple-time number, ‘Stars’ from Schoenberg and Boublil’s ‘Les Miserables’, which is a much more difficult hurdle, and it was here that a number of shortcomings in Boggess’ voice and performance manner in this concert began to pull into focus; and, as the concert went on, the more apparent they became.
They had decided to follow this difficult piece with another, even more challenging, number from the same show, ‘I Dreamed A Dream’: listening to Boggess do this was like watching a baby wandering into a minefield. It really wasn’t the right piece for her. It exposed her weaker lower register and an increasingly wide and unmanageable wobble, compounded with harshness in the forced sustained notes. Nevertheless, this was early days, and there was still time to recover. We got an interesting number from ‘It Shoulda Been You’, by Barbara Anselmi and Brian Hargrove: Boggess played it on Broadway and gave a committed performance of ‘the moment where she [her character, a lesbian] has to decide that she wants to be who she is’ (if I recollect her words precisely). It was polite, identity politics stuff, a bit Sondheim-esque, possibly, and revealed that her voice doesn’t have the variety of colours we have heard from other singers in this cycle handling similar material. So why, one found oneself wondering, had Seth elected to programme her? A lingering, niggling question.
You can’t fault Boggess for enthusiasm. She retains a powerfully youthful energy, like a passionate 12th grader trying out for the school show, and she is blessed with an inexhaustible capacity for talking about herself. Perhaps no-one has ever pointed out to her that, after a while, this approach can begin to lose a little of its sparkle. Put that together with a vocal technique that manages to make every song sound the same, and there is a risk of monotony. The next item, ‘When Is It My Turn?’ (I think that is what it was called) drew more attention to the Boggess method of voice production. It works. It does what she wants it to, with most of the material that came her way. However, when she tried a bit of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, and was clearly pleased with the results – ‘I sing it pretty good’ – I was less convinced. There was undoubted sincerity in her flat earnestness, but I kept wondering whether that was helping me feel involved, emotionally or intellectually, in the story of the character. And, for me, unfortunately, I don’t think it did.
Perhaps, in another age, she might have been marketed as ‘The nation’s favourite musical theatre soprano’, because there is something very reliable and safe in her approach. This makes her distinctly different from all of the other singers I have heard so far in this concert series. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong or inappropriate in an actress working in that way, but when there is nothing else happening around her, is it really fair to expect her to be able to carry an entire evening? Another number came and went (I think it was from Schoenberg and Boublil’s ‘Miss Saigon’) and all I heard was the same technique doing the same tricks. ‘Who Needs Love?’ got the same no-nonsense, somewhat prim approach. The same happened with a number from ‘The Secret Garden’ by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, another Broadway role for Boggess, about which she spoke with unquestionable belief. Yet, when she sang, all I could hear was the shrillness in her upper register.
There is a particular art in doing songs in cabaret which is extremely different from presenting them on the stage. Not everybody, possibly, is a master of both skill sets. And for those who aren’t best suited to the nowhere-to-run-nowhere-to-hide world of the cabaret platform, it might be kinder to advise them either to be a great deal better prepared to negotiate its pitfalls or maybe not to tackle it at all. Whatever had led us to this point, we then concluded with a song that was apparently in Japanese: the way Boggess put it over, in the show’s most Florence Foster-Jenkins-like moment, it might have been in any language… other than an intelligible one.
So, this might be one for the vault.