Oh! Carol     The Crazy Coqs Cabaret & Bar     20 July 2015

Nestled in the busy heart of Piccadilly is Brasserie Zedel, one of Chris Corbin and Jeremy King’s empire of lavishly appointed eateries/fine drinking establishments, this one irrepressibly French in flavour, and nestled within Brasserie Zedel, like an exotic Babushka Doll. is The Crazy Coqs Cabaret & Bar.

The room itself is stunning, an immaculately restored Art Deco delight. In 1935, the room was described in Building Magazine as “just a trifle dissipated and naughty” and that description holds true 80 years later. As you enter, the hushed tones embrace you but the striking colours, dazzling cocktail bar, and louche pianist promise decadence and fun. The service is smart and attentive, the food tasty but very expensive, and the drinks delicious but very expensive.

But there is an unquestionable buzz in the room. Expectation Of Joy is the Eau de Cologne de rigeur here. The venue attracts international acts of varying star quality; occasionally, true Giants of the entertainment world play here. The Callaway Sisters were here only recently. Standards are standard in the various cabarets which play here and, in my experience, the venue is an ideal place to spend an evening, as almost always you are assured of highly professional performances, and the eclectic mix of artists ensures that a wide range of musical tastes and styles is available to patrons.

What is not so very usual for the venue is for local acts to play here, unless the artists are well established. But with Oh! Carol, a two-hander celebrating the hit maker combination of Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, the venue was given over to two relatively unknown performers. Risky business?

Au contraire.

Juke box musicals usually take one of two forms: the autobiographical narrative (Jersey Boys, Beautiful) or the fantasy plot narrative (Mamma Mia!, We Will Rock You). The format for Oh! Carol was more along the lines of the former – the performers told the tale of Neil Sedaka’s song writing, explaining and contextualising a series of world wide smash hits. Sedaka has written and recorded over 500 songs, so the raw material for such a cabaret is plentiful.

One forgets, sometimes, just how prolific Sedaka was and how his music was, and is, a part of the fabric of everyday life. Can there be anyone who does not know Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen! or Breaking Up Is Hard To Do?

Happily, Oh! Carol provides a thoroughly entertaining and exuberant cross-section of Sedaka’s work. There are the hits but also lesser remembered works, and truly no number in the playlist is dull or unworthy. For the most part, the songs covered were co-written with Greenfield, and the lively, interesting patter tells the story of the highs and lows of the Sedaka/Greenfield partnership with wry objectivity and playful affection.

Of course, Sedaka and Greenfield wrote hits for many of their contemporaries, some of whom had better vocal instruments than Sedaka himself. But Sedaka was an impressive idiosyncratic performer in his own right. So in representing the wide arc of Sedaka’s successes, a wide range of styles and voices inevitably come into play. Wisely, the two performers here don’t let that become an obstacle; rather, it becomes a springboard for showcasing the dynamism and dexterity of their own mellifluous voices.

Damion Scarcella is every inch the cabaret performer; he looks exactly as you imagine Las Vegas headliners would: smartly dressed, handsome, precise hair, expressive and seductive eyes. A palpable sense of rhythm infests his stage persona and he can radiate heartbreak or heartswell in equal measure.

Scarcella has an exciting, brilliant voice, big and true. He has an agile, easy top, superb diction and velvet warmth of tone. He attacks the songs with gusto and panache, totally in control of the style necessary to allow them to soar. He doesn’t try to imitate Sedaka or any of the other performers in any serious way; rather, he adapts his own impressive voice to ensure each note of each hit is true and beautiful. From Oh! Carol itself, through Stairway To Heaven, Laughter In The Rain and Solitaire to the stunning Amarillo, Scarcella is pure, vintage class all the way.

Adding beauty and style of a different kind, Belinda Wollaston provides the feminine touch and a kick-ass pure high belt to the musical equation. Sedaka wrote great songs for women, especially Connie Francis, and Wollaston provides a glittering reminder of the special pleasures of listening to a woman fully engaged with the music and the performance. If you have socks, prepare for them to be blown off.

Her renditions of Fallin, I Waited Too Long, and One More Ride On The Merry Go Round were exquisite, but her most triumphant moment came in a truly breath-taking rendition of Where The Boys Are. Her richly resonant voice gave the songs a superb energy.

When they sang together, Scarcella and Wollaston were unbeatable. Frankly, I would like a recording of this show, at least their duets, to play whenever my mood needed lifting. True artists, they listened to each other, sang with (not at) each other, and harmonised and blended to produce pure and utterly gorgeous music. Tin Pan Alley, Little Devil, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Queen of 1964, Last Song Together and Love Will Keep Us Together – these were the classy, overwhelmingly powerful moments that saw these two great voices combine to lustrous effect.

Musical director Chris Malkinson must take some credit for the musicality here: his support from the piano, aided by Martin Layzell (Drums) and Jerry Sallis (Bass) was pitch perfect, suave and sophisticated.

This was a charming, exciting and thoroughly enjoyable waltz through the Sedaka back catalogue. The singing is exceptional, the intimate conversational style of the informative linking patter spot on, and the ebullient sense of showmanship irresistible.

Oh! Carol is touring around the UK. Don’t be caught standing on the outside – go where the music takes you!

Four stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.