Coloured Lights

“Coloured Lights”: a musical celebration of Kander & Ebb

With Sarah Applewood, Suanne Braun, Tim McArthur & Craig O’Hara

Stephen Hose – Musical Director / Pianist
Tim McArthur – Director / Staging
Katherine Ives – Producer
Abigail Yaxley – Set Designer
Sally Ferguson – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 2 September, 2007
Venue: Greenwich Playhouse, London SE10

John Kander and Fred Ebb were a musical and song-writing team for some forty years from the mid-1960s until Ebb’s death in 2004. Possibly most well-known for their song ‘New York, New York’, written for Martin Scorsese’s film of the same name, and taken up by Frank Sinatra as a signature song, they also wrote for Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera. Their first musical in 1965, “Flora the Red Menace”, introduced Minnelli to Broadway, but their first real hit show came the following year with “Cabaret”, an adaptation of the Berlin stories of Christopher Isherwood and John Van Druten’s play “I am a camera”. In its day “Cabaret” was thought to be quite risqué, although fairly tame by today’s standards. When Bob Fosse filmed “Cabaret” with Liza Minnelli, he made a more realistic version that oozed decadence. Oddly enough Sandy Wilson had written a musical about the same characters but it remained unproduced and director Harold Prince then acquired the rights. The rest is theatrical history. What, one wonders, would Fosse have made of Sandy Wilson?

Some of Kander and Ebb’s shows have been only moderate successes (“The happy time”, “Zorba”, “70, girls, 70”, “The act”, with Liza Minnelli, “The rink”, with Minnelli and Chita Rivera, and “Steel pier” had disappointingly short runs) but “Cabaret”, “Chicago”, “Woman of the year”, with Lauren Bacall, “Kiss of the Spiderwoman”, with Rivera, and “Fosse”, a revue based on the work of the choreographer-director have all been huge hits. “And the world goes ’round”, a compilation of the best of Kander and Ebb, did reasonably well too. Whatever the reception, be it public or critical, their shows have always been up there as Tony Award nominees and they have often won too. They also won awards in the Kennedy Center Honors. Like Sondheim, the shows of Kander and Ebb are not straight musical comedy, they always have an edge to them and right to their final collaboration on “Curtains”, a musical about a backstage murder mystery, their songs effused theatricality, and, as the title of the last song in their last musical says, they are ‘a hard act to follow’.

Tim McArthur’s “Coloured lights” celebrates this ‘hard act’ in a collection of their songs and not only those from the hit shows, but also some of the least well-known numbers. They range from the out and out romantic (‘Marry me’ from “The rink” and ‘Only love’ from “Zorba”) to the frankly weird (‘Morphine tango’ from “Kiss of the Spiderwoman”), through the downright comic (‘Arthur in the afternoon’ from “The act” and ‘After all these years’ from “The rink”) and the plainly philosophical (‘Coffee in a cardboard cup’ from “70, girls, 70” and ‘The grass is always greener;’ from “Woman of the year”).

The four singers forming the company all have strong voices and they deliver the numbers with panache and attack. There is no linking narration on either the writers or the shows, but as each number is a little like a one-act play, there’s no need. Kander and Ebb have a conversational style that is very appealing and the cast makes the best of this. Either singly or together they make an impression on the material that is truly winning, making one want to see the shows all over again. There is an emphasis on comedy, which the company uses to full effect, as the songs are nothing if not camp. Craig O’Hara demonstrates this quality in ‘Dressing them up’ from “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” and in ‘Marry me’ from “The rink”. Sarah Applewood does Liza Minnelli’s number ‘Arthur in the afternoon’ from “The act” with total abandon. Suanne Braun’s version of ‘It’s a business’ from “Curtains” shows she has a powerful theatrical presence. Tim McArthur imbues ‘Coloured lights’ with a delightfully innocent sense of awe and wonder.

It’s a short, sharp show packed with goodies that effortlessly sum up the talents of Kander and Ebb. Despite the difficult shape of the Greenwich Playhouse – a long, thin room with the audience on three sides – the company puts the songs across with ease, accompanied by musical director, the ever-versatile Stephen Hose, on keyboards.

  • Coloured Lights is at the Greenwich Playhouse in Greenwich Station Forecourt, 189 Greenwich High Road, London SE10 until Sunday 9 September: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.45 p.m., Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets on 020 8858 9256 or from the link below
  • Galleon Theatre

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