Following on from the success of last year's Simply Sondheim concerts, Cadogan Hall has decided to present a more extensive season of classics from the American Songbook this summer, sandwiched in between the BBC Proms' chamber music events.
Later this month, Willard White and Kim Criswell will sing music by Gershwin, but the celebration starts this week with four performances of A Swell Party, John Kane and David Kernan's 1991 cabaret-style show which interweaves songs by Cole Porter with a narrative about his life and works.
The format is simple: an actor playing Porter (Simon Green) tells his own story and sings one or two songs, while the bulk of the material is performed by four established stage stars (Maria Friedman, Daniel Evans, Graham Bickley and Mary Carewe). The accompaniment is provided by two pianists, David Firman and Jason Carr, and Cadogan Hall adds some atmosphere with coloured lighting and smoke effects.
This all has its benefits and its disadvantages. On the plus side, we get to move helter-skelter through an enormous range of material – thirty-five musical numbers, not counting multiple songs heard in medleys – which allows for both the lesser-known music of Porter's youth and the standard classics to be heard. Anyone desiring to hear Porter's 'Bobolink Waltz' from his early days or 'Bingo' from See America First, the show he wrote while at Yale, will not be disappointed. There are also generous selections from Red, Hot and Blue, Jubilee and Fifty Million Frenchmen.
However, there were all kinds of problems with this opening performance. The material is extremely complicated, and all the performers made at least one slip with the lyrics, while Simon Green completely forgot his lines at one point and had to go and check them out on the piano. The (apparently uncredited) arrangements let the evening down quite a lot: the hall's acoustic rendered the double piano combination extremely percussive and unsubtle, and the modern style of many of the accompaniments encouraged the performers to opt for an emotionally overwrought, Sondheim-esque mode of singing, rather than embracing the lightness of touch and lyricism of Porter's oeuvres. At times, I couldn't help but wish that fewer songs had been chosen, with less fussy delivery and more confidence in the quality of the original arrangements. The lack of direction also showed at times, with some odd choreographic decisions and an evident feeling of discomfort at the format from one or two of the singers.
Nevertheless, this is an evening of good-hearted entertainment. If she initially suffered severe intonation problems in 'I Love Paris' and stumbled in 'Blow, Gabriel, Blow', Maria Friedman warmed up and belted 'I Happen to Like New York' and her other numbers very effectively in the second half. She remains an arresting stage animal and an assertive interpreter of words, which is always important in Porter's songs, but I have heard her in better voice.
Fresh from his success on both sides of the Atlantic in Sunday in the Park with George, Daniel Evans seemed determined to apply the same approach to Porter that he had to Sondheim, but with less convincing results. For me, his vocal nuances were just too studied, for instance letting out high falsetto notes and manipulating his use of vibrato to an exaggerated extent in 'I Gaze in Your Eyes' and 'Begin the Beguine'. However, there were many merits in his performances too: he seemed really to know the material inside out, enjoying the wordfest of 'They Couldn't Compare to You', and he appeared comfortable and unafraid with the potentially very exposing format.
Graham Bickley was solid, honest and heartfelt in his numbers, and his control of tuning was much more secure and reliable than the other three singers'. He triumphed in 'Can-Can', but his interpretations could have been much more active and shaded: 'Miss Otis Regrets' is a difficult song at the best of times, yet here the delivery was too bland to do the song justice.
Mary Carewe is experienced in this kind of intimate event and her smoky voice was well-suited to Porter's music, not least 'Night and Day' in the second half. She also put in an amusing turn in Lois Lane's 'Always True to You in My Fashion' from Kiss Me, Kate, but she had a tendency to push the voice too hard, for instance in the tortured final note of 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy'.
Simon Green put in a largely impressive performance as Porter, and until his forgivable lapse of memory towards the end, he was the cornerstone of the evening, delivering his narrative suavely and connecting the musical numbers smoothly. I do, however, think it was a mistake for him to take part in singing so many of the songs: the chromatic movement and leaps in the verse of 'Ridin' High', for instance, were evidently a bridge too far for him to negotiate, even though he was more effective elsewhere.
With a little more preparation and rehearsal time, many of these problems might have been fixed, and it wouldn't surprise me if the later performances improve in quality. Even with the problems, however, there is plenty to enjoy: it might not be a 'swell' party, but it's certainly worth dropping in.
The Wizard of Oz at the Royal Festival Hall
Street Scene with The Opera Group
Arabian Nights on Sepia Records
The Music Man at the Chichester Festival
Candide at ENO
Betwixt! The Musical at the King's Head
My Fair Lady Original Broadway Cast on Naxos
Gypsy on Broadway with Patti Lupone
Funny Girl at the Chichester Festival
Kismet at ENO
On the Town at ENO