Feature Preview: The American Songbook in London [Until 27 June 2009]

Written by: Michael Darvell

After several years of indecision, Pizza on the Park returns to what it does best – providing a new home for cabaret and the American Songbook in London series…

It’s years since London gave its nightlife public a really good cabaret venue. With the rise of the comedy circuit, the musical side of sophisticated entertainment seemed to disappear. When variety was in its heyday, music, song and comedy would all appear on the same bill in theatres and clubs. Even some cinemas had live entertainment between the films (then called cinévariety). For instance in 1951 the Empire Leicester Square had a live show called “Joy Bells” to accompany screenings of “King Solomon’s Mines”. It starred the Empire Girls, the Empire Ballet, the Empire Singers and a Concert Orchestra conducted by George Melachrino plus a number of variety acts and a Pantomime Parade, at prices from 3 shillings and a penny to 4 and 7 (that’s old money) and including the film show.

Skip to the 1960s and there were still many London West End night-clubs such as Eve, Embassy, Latin Quarter, Winston’s, Pigalle, Danny La Rue’s, The Society and Talk of the Town at the Hippodrome which offered a complete evening out with two floorshows, dinner, dancing to two bands plus cabaret from such as Shirley Bassey. This lasted into the early 1980s when the cost of artists proved prohibitive, but for 55 shillings in 1964, or even £11.50p in 1979, it wasn’t a bad deal. At the London Room you could have had a similar night out with dinner, dancing and a star performance by, say, Tony Christie, Harry Secombe or Tommy Cooper for under £9.00. Out east in the City, Richard Stilgoe’s Poor Millionaire theatre restaurant in Bishopsgate offered a meal and a show for 42 shillings.

After the London entertainment scene began to change, even the best striptease places, such as Raymond’s Revuebar, shut-up shop in 2004. It became a cabaret club but closed altogether earlier this year, 2009. The Windmill Theatre, built as a cinema, but also a pioneer of nude entertainment, had closed in 1964 and became a cinema again. Now it’s a table-dancing club.

Does this mean there is now no place for cabaret in London‘s? Over the years, many have tried, most notably The Ritz in the 1980s and The Green Room at the Café Royal in the 90s which had cabaret for many years and attracted names such as Eartha Kitt, Barbara Cook, Michael Feinstein, Anthony Newley, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, Cybill Shepherd, Blossom Dearie and even David Soul. But, like most things, it came and it went and eventually even the Café Royal itself closed down, last Christmas. In between times it was only Pizza on the Park in Knightsbridge and the Jermyn Street Theatre and outposts such as Lauderdale House in Highgate that regularly continued with cabaret. Then Pizza on the Park suddenly became Live at the Park, concentrating mainly on jazz artists. So it was left to the Jermyn Street Theatre to carry the flag.

The last couple of years have witnessed some of the best evenings of cabaret London has ever seen. It took two American gentlemen to get it off the ground. The American Songbook in London was launched two years ago at the Jermyn Street Theatre by Keith Turnipseed and Jeff Harnar, presenting US artists of the magnitude of Julie Wilson, Steve Ross, Karen Akers, Andrea Marcovicci and KT Sullivan in the intimate surroundings of the Jermyn Street boîte.

However, good as this venue is for up-close cabaret, it has no facilities for serving food (unless you eat upstairs at Getti, the adjoining Italian restaurant). In order to get the full effect of dining and drinking with your entertainment, the American Songbook in London has now transferred to the lush intimacy of Pizza on the Park where it’s likely to capture some of that old spirit that was always part of the Pizza on the Park experience. On opening night (3 March) Jeff Harnar acknowledged the attendance of Peter Boizot, the man who created Pizza on the Park and without whom London might now not have any cabaret at all.

The flyer for Jeff Harnar’s new season announces that “Pizza on the Park – the supperclub of London – re-opens with live entertainment seven nights a week, year round.” Well, that’s a relief. Now we know where we stand and, if the enthusiasm of the opening night’s audience is anything to go by, then its success is already guaranteed. These days, it is brave indeed to start any new venture, so all power to Jeff Harnar’s elbow – and voice. Opening week sees Jeff himself taking the stand for a show he calls “Dancing in the dark” (3-7 March), based on his new album from PS Classics. After that the line-up is as follows.

Liliane Montevecchi (10-21 March) presents her celebrated show, “Back on the boulevard”, which choreographer and director Tommy Tune created for her. Veteran cabaret performer, Liliane worked at the Folies Bergère for seven years, having given up Hollywood, although while there she worked with Fred Astaire, Danny Kaye, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. In the theatre she appeared in the original productions of “Nine” and “Grand Hotel” and she has performed her own show at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.

Steve Ross (24 March-4 April) is no stranger to London, having appeared virtually every year for the last quarter-century. Known as “the crown prince of New York cabaret” (New York Times), he is the doyen in the art of civilised musical performance. His repertoire includes Cole Porter, Noël Coward, Ivor Novello, Flanders & Swann, Tom Lehrer and Stephen Sondheim, but this time he is presenting the songs of Alan Jay Lerner in a show called “I remember him well”.

Tony DeSare (7-18 April) and Paula West (5-16 May) are both new to London audiences. Tony is a singer-pianist-songwriter who performs ‘standard’ songs and original compositions with equal ease, moving from Great American Songbook classics by the Gershwins or Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen to something by Prince, Dylan, Phil Collins or Carol King. Paula West is a jazz singer who has worked with many jazz greats such as Bill Charlap, Bobby Hutcherson, Bruce Barth and Regina Carter. On the album “Ladies sing for lovers” she appeared with Ann Hampton Callaway, Karrin Allyson, Sheila Jordan and Oleta Adams. She has also worked in films with Robin Williams and Tilda Swinton.

KT Sullivan (21 April-2 May) appears between Tony DeSare and Paula West’s performances. No stranger to Jermyn Street or Pizza on the Park KT (it means Katie) will be giving her Jerome Kern programme. As well as performing in cabaret, KT is a seasoned musical theatre performer who has done “The threepenny opera” with Sting, as well as “Annie get your gun”, “Gentlemen prefer blondes”, “Easter parade”, “Carousel” and “Brigadoon”. She is a regular performer at the Oak Room in New York’s Algonquin Hotel while London has seen her in Noël Coward and Irving Berlin revues. With pianist and singer Mark Nadler she has recorded a Cole Porter compilation.

Maureen McGovern (19-30 May) is known for her “Stradivarius voice”, an amazing vocal technique that can range from down here on earth to way up there into the stratosphere. Early on she was noted for singing famous movie themes such as those for “The towering inferno”, “Gold” and “Superman”. Then she took on musical theatre in “The Pirates of Penzance”, “The Sound of Music” and “South Pacific”. She enjoyed success in the musical of “Little Women” which, although it did not last long on Broadway, had a highly successful US tour. She has continued with concerts and albums, of which her Gershwin CD, “Naughty baby”, is a sublime example. At Pizza on the Park her programme is called “A long and winding road”, the story, perhaps, of her own musical life?

Andrea Marcovicci (2-13 June) has appeared in London many times at both Jermyn Street and Pizza on the Park. She has really done it all – theatre shows such as “Ambassador”, “Coco”, “Finian’s Rainbow”, “Chaplin” (with Anthony Newley) “On a clear day you can see for ever”, soaps, other television series, feature films, as well as albums and regular cabaret. At Pizza on the Park she’ll be giving her Rodgers & Hart programme created for her twentieth-anniversary season at the Oak Room.

Maude Maggart (16-27 June) brings the first season at Pizza on the Park to a close. Maude appeared in the first two Jermyn Street American Songbook in London series. Last year her “Good Girl/Bad Girl” show explored female stereotypes through the songs of Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. This year her show is called “Speaking of dreams”.

Jeff Harnar opened the season with “Dancing in the dark”. This is a collection of classic American Songbook numbers, sadly not the sort of music that is broadcast much these days. Here were some of the best songs by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Burton Lane & Alan Jay Lerner, Jule Styne & Sammy Cahn, Vernon Duke & John LaTouche, John Kander & Fred Ebb, Cy Coleman & Carolyn Leigh, Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg, Arthur Schwartz & Howard Dietz, Hoagy Carmichael & Johnny Mercer. These are just some of the composers and lyricists who made the Great American Songbook what it is. Sadly, only one of them, John Kander, at the time of writing (March 2009), is still with us.

Harnar tends to choose the happy side of the repertoire; when performing he is also smiling. But then how could you not smile at such songs as ‘Come back to me’ and ‘On a clear day…’ (both Lerner & Lane), ‘Taking a chance on love’ (Duke & LaTouche) or Cole Porter’s ‘Can can’? Jeff has such a warm voice, crystal-clear enunciation and the ability to put across a song with great feeling and panache so that it’s impossible not to be touched by his obvious sincerity. His is probably not a voice of today but perhaps a throwback to the 1950s, for in his delivery of a lyric he may well put you in mind of a crooner like Vic Damone. He charms his audience and he has a good sense of humour, too, peppering his act with anecdotes and quotations.

His set includes classic numbers such as the Gershwins’ ‘Shall we dance?’ and ‘I can’t be bothered now’, and the Dietz & Schwartz songs ‘Dancing in the dark’ and ‘By myself’. He also includes many rare numbers such as Cole Porter’s ‘You can do no wrong’ which Judy Garland sang in the film “The Pirate”, the Coleman/Leigh number ‘I walk a little faster’, which the late Blossom Dearie popularised, ‘East side of heaven;’ by Johnny Burke and James V. Monaco, a number sung by Bing Crosby in the eponymous film, and Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer’s ‘I don’t think I’ll end it all today’ from their musical “Jamaica”.

The impeccable musical arrangements are all by Alex Rybeck and played by the brilliant trio of Nathan Martin, piano, David Blythe Johnson, bass, and Matt Skelton, drums. On the humorous side there’s a delicious ‘Marriage medley’ in which songs from “My fair lady”, “Flower drum song” and “West side story” are all performed in the manner of a Stephen Sondheim score, as if he had written the music. It’s a nice conceit and goes to prove what a recognisable style Sondheim truly has. Did I also notice a little touch of Sondheim in Hoagy Carmichael and Mercer’s ‘How little we know’ with all those rippling piano chords?

Jeff, his musicians and guests, return on Sundays (including a matinee) and Mondays for Jeff’s compilation show “The 1959 Broadway Songbook” (8 March-13 April), a programme that demonstrates the wealth of talent on Broadway in the year that Jeff was born. Musicals running then – and there were over twenty of them – included “My fair lady”, “West Side story”, “Gypsy”, “Bells are ringing”, “The music man”, “The sound of music”, “At the drop of a hat”, “Destry rides again”, “Fiorello”, “Flower drum song”, “Jamaica”, “Little Mary Sunshine” and “Take me along”. Yes, sir, it really does look as if Pizza on the Park is back and doing what it does best.

  • Jeff Harnar’s American Songbook in London is at Pizza on the Park, 11-13 Knightsbridge, London SW1 on Tuesday to Saturday: open from 6 p.m. for the 7.45 performance, and Friday & Saturday: open 9.30 p.m. for 10.15
  • The 1959 Broadway Songbook is from 8 March to 13 April on Sundays: open from 1.30 p.m. for 3, and from 5.30 p.m. for 7, and on Mondays: open at 6 p.m. for the 7.45
  • Tickets, £25.00, on 08456 027 017

  • American Songbook in London

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