Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black

Hayes Theatre, April 8

Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black. Photo: supplied

Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black. Photo: supplied

We hear her voice first, a lovely sweet sound in the darkness, then the lights come up on Lucy Maunder perched on a stool looking effortlessly gorgeous in a little black dress.

One of the younger leading ladies of Australian musical theatre, Maunder is back in Sydney with her cabaret show spun around the Irving Berlin songbook.

Given Berlin’s prodigious output there are umpteen classic songs to choose from and Maunder gives us a wonderful selection ranging from ragtime to ballads to comedy numbers. Among others, she performs Puttin’ On the Ritz, Blue Skies, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Cheek to Cheek, Steppin’ Out With My Baby, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, and What’ll I Do along with other less well-known songs such as Yiddisha Nightingale and Mr Monotony. It’s a great reminder of what an superb songwriter Berlin was.

With her musical director Isaac Hayward providing skillful, sensitive accompaniment at a Baby Grand, Maunder’s interpretations are respectful, fairly straightforward yet fresh, and beautifully sung.

Getting the biggest applause of the night is a gloriously funny take on I Love a Piano, in which Hayward gets carries away, launching with gusto into an outpouring of classic piano pieces, sidelining Maunder who responds with mock indignation as she waits for him to return to the song.

Nicholas Christo has written the book – and it’s here that the show could arguably benefit from further development. Rather than provide a potted history of Berlin’s life, Christo gives us short, mood grabs, almost word poems at times, which depict the 1920s New York milieu with its speakeasies, honky-tonk palaces and Bowery saloons where Berlin began his career. Maunder also reads out an article by an outraged lady about the moral perils of ragtime, which adds another fun element.

I think it’s great that Christo, Maunder and director Neil Gooding have avoided the much-travelled route of trotting out snatches of biographical information to link the songs. But that said, I found myself wanting to hear something more about the Russian-born, American-Jewish composer/lyricist and the background to his songs, a few more anecdotes, and maybe a bit extra about Maunder’s own connection or thoughts about them to personalise the show more.

Though many have loved the show just as it is, a stronger framework around the songs would make it even better.

Nonetheless, Maunder has a lovely poise and a nice rapport with the audience. She sings beautifully, with versatility and clarity, connecting with the spirit of each song, and she delivers the patter, such as it is, with a light, lively touch.

Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black is at the Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney’s Potts Point until April 12

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