The American Songbook in London [12 February-15 March 2008]

Written by: Michael Darvell

One of the highlights of last year’s cabaret scene in London – and these days there aren’t many – was the American Songbook month at the Jermyn Street Theatre, which looked at four of the USA’s most celebrated song and music-theatre writers, Frank Loesser, Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, in performances by great exponents of the material – Andrea Marcovicci, Steve Ross, Maude Maggart and Jeff Harnar.

The demand was such that the series has returned, this time for five weeks – with Julie Wilson, Karen Akers and our old friends Maude Maggart, Steve Ross and Jeff Harnar. Additionally there’s a Spotlight Series from cabaret-artists Alison Jiear, Helen Hobson, Simon Green and Jessica Martin. It’s going to be another great month for those of us starved of good cabaret performers. Mind you, I am writing this in a week when Chita Rivera hits London for three nights (Shaw Theatre, 8-10 February) followed by Ute Lemper there (14 & 15 February).

It’s a while since Julie Wilson (12-17 February) played London. She used to be a regular at The Ritz and Pizza on the Park (RIP) specialising in the songs of Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Cy Coleman and, in particular, Sondheim. Before that she was known from her many West End appearances in the 1950s in such shows as “Kiss me, Kate”, “Bet your life”, “Bells are ringing” and “South Pacific”. Long considered the epitome of the cabaret-artist, the legendary Wilson will sing many of her favourite songs.

If Julie Wilson is the grande dame of cabaret, then Maude Maggart is certainly on the road to being a cabaret diva. She made her London debut last year to great acclaim and returns with a new show called “Good Girl/Bad Girl”, a show that explores female stereotypes through the songs of Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley via the work of the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, Sondheim and Joan Baez.

Karen Akers (26 February-2 March) is no stranger to London, having also often played Pizza on the Park. She has an eclectic taste in song, not least French, and ranges from Rodgers and Hart through Edith Piaf to Kander and Ebb and the inevitable Sondheim, stopping at all points in between. In London she will present her new Jule Styne Songbook show, “Simply Styne”, singing the songs of the man who wrote ‘Just in time’, ‘People’, ‘Everything’s coming up roses’, ‘Time after time’ and ‘The party’s over’. Karen will also be giving students of LAMDA, the London Academy of Drama and Art, a performance and masterclass as part of an Educational Outreach programme.

Steve Ross (4-9 March) has been coming to London for as long as I can remember, which is probably about a quarter of a century. He is the doyen of the civilised supper-club set. The New York Times called him “the crown prince of New York cabaret”, but really he is the King of Cabaret. He’s from a dying breed, now that Bobby Short is no longer with us and as Michael Feinstein concentrates on concert work, although he is keeping cabaret alive through his New York nightclub Feinsteins at the Regency and in London with Feinsteins at the Shaw.

Singer-pianist Ross also has a new show for London. It’s called “To Wit: Ross on Wry”, a title that only Britishers will understand. It’s a collection of funny songs through the ages, encompassing the work of Ivor Novello, Noël Coward, Flanders & Swann, Tom Lehrer, Cole Porter, Howard Dietz & Arthur Schwartz, E. Y. Harburg and … Sondheim.

The American Songbook in London series comes to an end with the season’s host Jeff Harnar (11-15 March) presenting the London debut of “The 1959 Broadway Songbook”. That particular year was a good one for Broadway and Jeff sings songs from the 21 musicals that were running at the time. “At the drop of a hat”, “Destry rides again”, “Fiorello”, “Gypsy”, “Little Mary Sunshine”, “Once upon a mattress”, “Redhead”, “Saratoga” and “Take me along” – it wasn’t a bad year. However, with other long-runners still playing in 1959, such as “Bells are ringing”, “Flower Drum Song”, “Jamaica”, “L’il Abner”, “The Music Man”, “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story”, that season was nothing short of miraculous.

You just won’t have time to go anywhere else but Jermyn Street for five weeks!

  • Spotlight Series on Sundays @ 6.30 p.m. and Mondays @ 7.30 p.m. during the American Songbook season from 17 February to 10 March 2008 – Alison Jiear (17 & 18 February), Helen Hobson (24 & 25 February), Simon Green in his Noël Coward show (2 & 3 March), Jessica Martin in “Unlimited Engagement” (9 & 10 March): tickets @ £20.00
  • The American Songbook in London is at Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6ST – Julie Wilson (12-17 February); Maude Maggart (19-24 February); Karen Akers (26 February-2 March); Steve Ross (4-9 March); and Jeff Harnar (11-15 March): Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinees Saturday & Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets £25.00 or £100.00 for all five shows
  • Bookings on 020 7287 2875
  • Jermyn Street Theatre

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