By any standards this was a remarkable performance by Lorna Dallas on many levels, technical, emotional and dramatic. One man in the audience shouted out at the end, ‘You’ve still got it’, and spoke for us all. This was an object lesson both in how to reach out to an audience with traditional skills, how to manage and preserve a talent as the years pass, and of the art that conceals art. For while it is true that great music can survive without special advocacy, a special performer can still make us hear things in the lines of old masterpieces that re-invent the startled rapture of creativity as a newborn wonder all over again.

‘If the wind closes a door, it will open another’ – Once in a Blue Moon [Kern/Caldwell]

Lorna Dallas has not performed cabaret in London for many a year, but the huge ovation she received right at the start of her hour-long session at Crazy Coqs registered the affection and admiration in which she is still widely held. An hour later the aptness of that tribute had been proved after one of the most technically astute, tightly structured and tastefully delivered cabaret programmes this venue has seen in many a year. This was a vindication of the art of cabaret at its traditional best, and the reprise on July 4th should be on every cabaret-goer’s must-see-and-hear list.

Dallas has built up a formidable reputation on both sides of the Atlantic as a stage and solo performer. She is particularly associated with the music of Ivor Novello and Jerome Kern, and notable examples of the work of both these (still underrated) composers found their way into this programme. There were some fourteen items, many of them pairs of songs of similar or contrasted mood ingeniously linked together by the lush and assured pianism of musical director Jason Carr.

Dallas is a confident, unabashed soaring lyric soprano, with a secure operatic training and a total belief in the ability of musical theatre to transform lives. There are no gimmicks: it is a question of a piano with a top-notch interpreter, a stool, a glass of water, a frock, a hand-held mike, and a voice of perennial freshness and pure resonance. She prefers simply to let her voice and the music do the talking. There was quite a bit of anecdotage and patter, but no more than was needed to ease the way into a change of mood for the next segment. Professional, classy, and understated, because nothing needed to be overstated…

With fully burnished top notes and a great ability to swing and sway with long-breathed soaring melodies, many of her opening numbers were about aspiration or wistful retrospect – love remembered, home regained, memories evoked and treasured. Some of these had specially written lyrics by her collaborator, Barry Kleinbort, that fitted well even with songs better known with other words.

The canny structure of the programme ensured there was also enough tart flavour to balance out the sweeter candy. Specifically there was plenty of up-tempo Sondheim with snappy diction to die for: ‘Back in business’ told us that with Dallas there was ‘no more bust, just boom’; and in the duet ‘You’re gonna love tomorrow’, both Carr and Dallas hit just the right note of narcissistic, playful cynicism.

Dallas has the ability to use even familiar songs to tell us a new story, as if she were playing out a little scene on stage: two exquisite examples of this were ‘Summer me, Winter me’, the Michel Legrand-Bergmans favourite, which she turned inward in a deeply personal way; and in a special high point of the evening there was a magical Kern segue from ‘Nobody else but me’, into a rendition of ‘Bill’, that reduced the audience to an intensity of personal reverie and silent reflection rarely heard in a cabaret venue. Modestly, Dallas referenced the famous performance given by Cleo Laine in the production of Showboat, where she herself played Magnolia; but this was a rendition in the same breathtaking league.

Her links to opera and empathy with operetta came through in many of the Novello and Kern items where waltz-time was not far away. Best of all was a doubling up of ‘Waltz of my heart’ & ‘Waltz in Swingtime’ which was built up layer by layer with exquisite control. Here too we heard Carr’s skills as a Tony-nominated orchestral arranger coming through: the driving, thickly written lines gave the sense that a whole palm-court band had swept into the room. No need for that old joke: ‘Give the band a fiver if they play Ivor.’

The same could be said for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Younger than Springtime’: it gradually opened up like a flower in slow-motion camera with an open-hearted arrangement that embraced the whole keyboard and the whole audience by the time it reached peak peroration.

A tribute to Jerry Herman you would expect given the singer’s roles in Milk and Honey and Hello Dolly; but it was still a neat idea to place ‘Let’s not waste a moment’ with ‘Before the parade passes by, ’ which together capture the composer’s aesthetic of ‘grab ahold of life while you may’ in a neat five-minute sequence.

Another intriguing feature of this play-list was the way Dallas introduced material not so well known on this side of the Atlantic alongside old favourites: in one example we moved from an exquisite miniature written by Amanda McBroom, using lyrics from Dallas’ husband, into a poised and heartfelt a rendition of ‘How deep is the ocean’, which made you hear that Berlin warhorse anew.

The evening gathered and grew to a climax with ‘My life belongs to you’, a performance which crystallised the singer’s skill in pointing and shaping a line in a way that makes you feel the experience as both universal and personally directed at you. That is not so much a technical thing as a bifurcated gift of communication that some are blessed with, and others not. Certainly it had a galvanising effect on the audience, who rose as one at its conclusion. Dallas then sent us off into the windy and rainy night with the fragile but determined optimism of ‘Once in a blue moon’, where she toned down her delivery and pointed the text with a focused intensity of expression that commanded attention as a signing-off.

By any standards this was a remarkable performance on many levels, technical, emotional and dramatic. One man in the audience shouted out at the end, ‘You’ve still got it’, and spoke for us all. This was an object lesson both in how to reach out to an audience with traditional skills, how to manage and preserve a talent as the years pass, and of the art that conceals art. For while it is true that great music can survive without special advocacy, a special performer can still make us hear things in the lines of old masterpieces that re-invent the startled rapture of creativity as a newborn wonder all over again.

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Lorna Dallas : Home Again
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…