‘I love a piano, I love a piano, I love to hear somebody play upon a piano….’
This song is repeated often in this compilation of show tunes, but why the focus on the piano in a program of singing? Because the show is about composers and they are all linked through a love of tinkering away at a piano to produce the tunes that are still with us nearly a century after they were written. The Great Jewish American Songbook is currently being performed Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate and it chronicles the musical output of six fabulous composers and their lyricists. ‘Exploring a century of song, featuring the creators of our musical theatre legacy’ is the raison d’etre here.
For two hours the musical journey meanders through decades beginning with the beautiful music of Jerome Kern. There follows an exposition of the development of the genre through the jazz age and Tin Pan Alley, ending in the most modern piece, Fiddler on the Roof.
The question then is why is it the music of Jewish composers only? According to the writer of this piece, Chris Burgess, these composers created a musical escape from the grittiness of their world and their work was instrumental in the invention of the American Dream. Their Jewishness is an inherent part of their legacy and is present in the music as well as the subject matters and lyrics. This concept is examined through presentation of their music.
Considering the prevalence of the song I Love a Piano it is most fortunate that Musical Director and keyboard player, Neil MacDonald, is an excellent exponent of the art. His fingers fly through the lyrical strains of Jerome Kern and syncopate with flair through the jazz ages and beyond. Doug Grannell on percussion never misses a beat and Joe Pickering on his double bass provides the necessary underpinning.
This excellent band is fronted by a troupe of 4 vocalists, two ladies and two men. When they sing in close harmony it is heaven, and, as soloists, they each show off their own set of strengths.
Jennifer Harding is a strong performer who injects meaning and emotion into every piece that she delivers from smoking ballads to songs as light and airy as I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair from South Pacific. Her lower range is rich and full and she is very confident in all aspects, making it a joy to watch her.
Contrasting with Harding in tonal quality is Jessie May, who lets her voice rip at the opening with Sweet Mystery of Life. She has a rich and powerful soprano register that delights in her various solos and in the group numbers. She effortlessly conjures her more playful side as required.
Both ladies look spectacular, especially in the sequined sheath dresses in the second half of the show. Their sparkle matches the twinkling lights of the curtain and pick up every nuance of the well planned lighting. The only problem in the lighting was in the beginning of the show when there was a tendency for a soloist to be singing away in the dark at the end of the number.
Complementing the female half of the cast were the voices of Lee Ormsby and Grant McConvey.
Ormsby possesses a voice of great warmth and his face twinkles with charm. Like Harding, his strength also lies in his ability to communicate the story of each song beginning with his first solo Only Make Believe and continuing throughout.
Grant McConvey is the baby of the group having graduated from the Guildhall School of Acting only last year. But, then, he did win The Stiles and Drewe Award (Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year 2015) and his expertise is clear. He is particularly good in the second half of the programme when the rich timbre of his voice is most evident.
The Great Jewish American Songbook is a well conceived and presented show that will appeal to all those who have a love of musical theatre. It is a very satisfying foray into the tip of a giant iceberg. There remains so much music to peruse but it’s a great place to start the exploration.