Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
A celebration of the music and lyrics of Rodgers & Hart, devised by Tim McArthur & David Harvey
Stephen Ashfield, Katie Kerr, Valerie Cutko, Laura Armstrong, Tim McArthur (singers)
David Harvey – Musical Director & piano)
Tim McArthur – Director
Phil Aidan – Additional Staging
Russell Fisher – Set & Costume Design
Phil Hunter – Lighting Design
Reviewed by: Tom Vallance
Reviewed: 30 July, 2011
Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre, London
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote some of the most memorable popular songs of the 20th-century, and this suitably bewitching programme does them proud. Dispensing with any dialogue – there is no biographical information or comment – the show presents nearly forty of the team’s numbers, performed by a talented cast, fluidly staged by Tim McArthur, who is also one of the versatile participants. McArthur can be raucously funny one minute, as in ‘Johnny One Note’ (which I’ve never heard sung by a man), and heartbreaking the next, as in the rueful ‘Glad to be unhappy’. Valerie Cutko had a personal triumph playing Ninotchka in concert performances of Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings in London and New York, Stephen Ashfield has just completed three years in Jersey Boys, Katie Kerr was Fantine in a concert performance of Les Misérables, and Laura Armstrong was in the recent revival of A Little Night Music. She gets to sing the last song Rodgers & Hart wrote together, the witty account of a lady who bumps off her husbands, ‘To keep my love alive’.
Rodgers & Hart made beautiful music together, but were a strangely mismatched pair. Both came from affluent middle-class backgrounds, but Rodgers was a discreet womaniser and a disciplined worker, while Hart was an intellectual who was tortured by his lack of height and his homosexuality, and would disappear on ‘benders’ for days on end – Rodgers would literally lock him in to make him work, but the results were a glorious collection of songs that poured out of them between 1919 and 1943. In this celebration of their legacy, McArthur and David Harvey strike a neat balance between the standards and the lesser-known items. With one exception, ‘Blue moon’, all the Rodgers & Hart songs were written for stage and screen. The show does not give us ‘Blue moon’ but one of the melody’s earlier incarnations, ‘Prayer’, written for Jean Harlow to sing in the film Hollywood Party, but discarded. The title-song from that film opens and closes the show, conveying the flavour of the 1920s and 1930s.
On a minimal set – a grand piano and some photographs, principally one of the celebrated duo – the cast performs in evening wear, making good use of the Jermyn Street Theatre’s limited space and even providing some lively dance steps. McArthur and Kerr tap-up a storm to ‘You mustn’t kick it around’, one of the witty, streetwise numbers composed for the show Pal Joey, and elsewhere there are demonstrations of the cakewalk and the Charleston. Near the end of the first half, there is a medley of five songs starting with Valerie Cutko’s loving vocal of the team’s first big hit, ‘Manhattan’; she puts an engaging interpretation to the verse’s opening, “Summer journeys to Niagara and to other places aggravate all our cares…” by appearing to hesitate while trying to think of another holiday spot besides Niagara before settling for “other places”. It is one of several moments that find the production refreshingly unwilling to always settle for customary interpretations. Later Cutko and Stephen Ashfield give a rare poignancy to ‘There’s a small hotel’. Ashfield is a particularly fine tenor, and his meditative rendition of ‘Isn’t it romantic?’ is one of the best I have ever heard. Among the less-familiar ballads are another Hollywood Party discard, ‘My friend the night’ (Cutko), a charming duet, ‘Every Sunday afternoon’ from the show Higher and Higher (Kerr and Ashfield), and ‘He was too good to me’ (Armstrong), written for Ruth Etting to sing in Simple Simon but cut during rehearsals. No-one wrote lyrics of unrequited love as well as Hart, represented by ‘Spring is here’, ‘A ship without a sail’ and ‘Nobody’s heart’, the last given a wonderfully off-kilter delivery by Cutko.
Hart’s great wit is much in evidence, too, in ‘At the Roxy Music Hall’, ‘What can you do with a man?’, ‘Come with me (to jail)’, ‘A lady must live’ and ‘The girl friend’ with its wonderful line, “Homely wrecks appeal, when their cheques appeal, but she has sex appeal…” The superb diction of the singers (not something one can take for granted these days) allows every one of Hart’s words to be heard, and there is such a commitment to authenticity that it was surprising to find even one tiny slip – a victim in ‘To keep my love alive’ was tossed from “his balcony” instead of “my balcony”; surprising, too, to hear the laundered version of a line in ‘Bewitched’ instead of Hart’s steamier original.
Sterling support is given by David Harvey, and his rare but choice solo moments include a chorus of one of Rodgers’s beautiful waltzes, ‘Falling in love with love’. The evening seems all too brief – listening to a wealth of great songs performed with such accomplishment is something to be savoured – but there is more than enough in the boys’ catalogue to furnish another such celebration…
- Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered is at Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London SW1 until Saturday 13 August 2011
- Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinees Saturday & Sunday at 3.30
- Jermyn Street Theatre