A Spoonful Of Sherman allows you to sit back and enjoy once more some of the songs that have punctuated most of our lifetimes, while discovering some semi-hidden gems that deserve to be heard more often. If you are seriously interested in the art of song make a detour this month to Crazy Coqs – you will find it a life-affirming experience.

SpoonfulA seven o’clock start is an alarmingly early start for cabaret, but with 40 numbers on the song list this was forgivable – not so much a spoonful as a tablespoonful of the Sherman family’s contribution to film and theatre lyrics and music! For many, certainly including this reviewer, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and The Slipper and the Rose provided the soundtrack to childhood. Certainly these shows provided the core of the retrospective, but perhaps the leading revelation of this carefully constructed evening was the fact that the family as a whole has been involved in the music business at the highest level for well over a century.

Samuel Sherman fled from Cossack pogroms to become the concert master and occasional court composer for Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, before moving his family to the USA in 1909. In the next generation, his son Al Sherman became a leading composer in Tin Pan Alley. The works of his we heard at the start of this medley were the kind of up-beat or consolatory music appropriate for theatre and early radio audiences in the Great Depression, neatly turned out, and offering a lot of scope to many famous performers to take them on and make them their own.

His two sons, Robert and Richard, got into a song-writing partnership as a result of their father giving them a challenge once he had become convinced that neither one of them was going to be write the next great American novel and symphony. Their most celebrated years coincided with their period as staff songwriters for Walt Disney, but what is remarkable is how they then transferred themselves seamlessly to other film franchises and to Broadway in the 1970s. In our time the new musical versions of Chitty and Mary Poppins have pushed the brand forward anew for the benefit of younger generations, and to the overall legacy we now can add in the most recent work of Robert J. Sherman, the latest generation of song-writer to continue the family tradition.

It is Robert J Sherman who narrates this show which provides a detailed introduction to some of the family’s most distinctive work. The songs are performed with skill and verve by different combinations of Helena Blackman, Daniel Boys, and Christopher Hamilton at the piano. Sherman and Hamilton also sing in some numbers.

Hearing all these songs together leaves a range of impressions – there is of course consistent verbal dexterity and deftness in the lyrics, but it is always done with consideration for a singable and comfortable line in the voice even when tongue-twisters are involved. You can understand why singers like this material so much. The emotional tone is mostly bright and cheerful but avoids easy sentimentality through a pert alertness of diction and a straightforward sincerity of approach. Composer Richard Sherman always knows when to provide an elaborate accompaniment and when to pare things back, and has within his repertory a huge variety of musical forms that gracefully move with the times as they progress through the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Blackman’s experience in the world of Julie Andrews makes her ideal casting for a lot of this repertory that Andrews made her own. Her bright, precise, well-tempered voice communicates the Mary Poppins songs authentically, adding in a change of register for ‘Feed the Birds’, and Daniel Boys joins her for energetic yet tasteful renditions of ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ and ‘Chim Chim Cheree’.

Boys is consistently excellent in all the numbers assigned to him, with gloriously floated top notes and high-energy dexterity and commitment. As we moved onto The Jungle Book his version of  ‘I wanna be like you’, right down among the audience, brought the house down, and elsewhere he showed a very wide range of sensitivity and power that cries out for more frequent West End showcasing.

Hamilton had much more to do than many cabaret pianists: 40 songs means a binder of sheet music on the piano rest that looked as thick as a Wagner score. Throughout the one and half hours of music his embellishments and solo moments were performed with taste and skill, not to mention his elegant vocal interventions, usually in the more comic numbers. He was there to support the singers as needed, but did not fail to take his moments for showmanship when they came along.

Robert J. Sherman himself demonstrated he was no mean performer himself and deserves credit for the narrative line he wove through the songs, which gave us many intriguing anecdotes and did not overstay its welcome. His own work, notably the song, ‘Music of the Spheres,’ given a peerless rendition by Boys, sat well and naturally with that of his father and uncle.

There was a good measure of audience involvement throughout the evening that took off, as it always does, when we reached the final set of songs featuring ‘our fine four-fendered friend’. We ended, as we had to, with ‘It’s a Small World (after all)’, written originally for the New York World’s Fair of 1964 – a wonderful example of how often occasional music transcends its occasion.

This anthology shows respectful skill in assembling a vehicle for surveying one of the most successful song-writing partnerships ever. The performances are skilful, powerful and sensitive. The evening allows you to sit back and enjoy once more some of the songs that have punctuated most of our lifetimes, while discovering some semi-hidden gems that deserve to be heard more often. If you are seriously interested in the art of song make a detour this month to Crazy Coqs – you will find it a life-affirming experience.

A Spoonful Of Sherman allows you to sit back and enjoy once more some of the songs that have punctuated most of our lifetimes, while discovering some semi-hidden gems that deserve to be heard more often. If you are seriously interested in the art of song make a detour this month to Crazy Coqs – you will find it a life-affirming experience.

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A Spoonful Of Sherman
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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…