The American Songbook in London – Jeff Harnar Sings Cole Porter

Jeff Harnar sings Cole Porter

Jeff Harnar with Alex Rybeck (piano) & Steve McManus (double bass)

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 27 February, 2007
Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre, 16B Jermyn Street, London SW1

The American Songbook in London comes to an end, after only a four-week season that has given us the opportunity of seeing Andrea Marcovicci, Steve Ross, Maude Maggart and Jeff Harnar performing the songs of Frank Loesser, Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.

The season was conceived and created by Jeff Harnar and Keith Turnipseed, two American gentlemen of impeccable taste who seem to know just how to stage these classic American songs to their best advantage. Harnar has been the host for the past month, introducing and joining in with the artists, but now he gets to make his official London solo debut in cabaret.

I first came to know Jeff Harnar from his album called “The 1959 Broadway Songbook”. That year was a particularly good one for Broadway theatre. It’s not that all the new shows were good ones although, with the likes of “At the Drop of a Hat”, “Destry Rides Again”, “Fiorello”, “Gypsy”, “Little Mary Sunshine”, “Once upon a Mattress”, “Redhead”, “Saratoga”, “The Sound of Music” and “Take me Along”, it wasn’t a bad year either, but still playing during 1959 were also the long-runners such as “Bells are Ringing”, “Flower Drum Song”, “Jamaica”, “Li’l Abner”, “The Music Man”, “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story” were still in residence. You wouldn’t get such a rich brew as this now. Anyway, with that CD Jeff Harnar gained his credentials as a good egg to have around in a cabaret situation. Many appearances, albums and awards later, he came to London.

With his pleasing light baritone, Jeff Harnar is ideal for presenting the songs of Cole Porter. These songs are a mixture of trifles – the ever-so clever ‘list’ numbers such as ‘Let’s do it’ or ‘You’re the top’ – and the more poignant love songs, such as ‘Ev’rytime we say goodbye’, ‘I’ve got you under my skin’, and ‘True love’, although, as Jeff is keen to point out, love songs are not that straightforward in Cole Porter’s work, which may be a reflection of Porter’s own lifestyle – he was a rich gay man married to a rich heiress. They lived mostly in Europe while he wrote for Broadway and Hollywood, something he did to stave off boredom in a career that he pursued with a “whim of iron”.

There’s such a rich collection to choose from and, apart from those just mentioned, the songs that Jeff selects do include some rarities such as ‘Cherry pies oughta be you’ and ‘They couldn’t compare to you’, both from “Out of this World”, ‘I am in love’ from “Can-Can”, and the Jimmy Durante number ‘Little Skipper from Heaven Above’ from the show “Red Hot and Blue”.

Each song is sung with impeccable diction and introduced with relevant details imparted with a charming freshness and insouciance. Jeff is a product of the ‘old school’ that offers a civilised approach to the material, acknowledges its worth and presents it in the best possible light. He is aided in his not inconsiderable efforts by bassist Steve McManus and musical director and arranger Alex Rybeck who is also revealed as a fine vocalist as he joins Jeff in some of the Cole Porter duets, such as ‘Well, did you evah!’, written for “Dubarry was a Lady” in 1939 but revised for the film of “High Society” in 1956.

Cole Porter suffered a riding accident in 1937 and remained partially paralysed for the rest of his life. This didn’t stop him from writing witty numbers and heart-breaking love songs for almost another thirty years. His philosophy could be summed up in a few lines from a song he wrote for “Out of this World” in 1950 but which was, inexplicably, cut on tour. ‘From this moment on’ was eventually used in the 1953 film of “Kiss me, Kate”: “From this moment on / You and I, babe / We’ll be ridin’ high, babe / Ev’ry care is gone / From this moment on.”

Now that the American Songbook season is drawing to a close, we can only thank Jeff and his colleagues for giving London the privilege of seeing and hearing these great American artists performing these great American songs, and look forward to their next visit, especially if they can stay longer than a month.

  • “The American Songbook in London” at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 16B Jermyn Street, London W1
  • Telephone: 020-7287 2875
  • 27 Feb-4 Mar: Jeff Harnar sings Cole Porter
  • Times: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m.; matinees Saturday & Sunday at 3 p.m.
  • Tickets: £23.50 including champagne; £20.00 if booking all four shows; concessions £14.00; Tuesday opening nights £40.00 including dinner. Also special dinner and show offer for £40 at Franco’s in Jermyn Street
  • Jermyn Street Theatre

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