To slightly alter the Bard, If music be the food of life, play on, give me excess of it. This saying is obviously part of the philosophy of life at Aria Entertainments who have mastered the art of putting on fantastic musical shows that entertain, inform and bring their chosen theme to life in a really awesome way. Having reviewed two of these shows last year – Jerry’s Girls and The Jewish Legends, I was really looking forward to seeing the latest production, The Great Jewish American Songbook at Highgate Village’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse.
The premise of the show is very simple with four very talented singers – Jennifer Harding, Jessie May, Grant McConvey and Lee Ormsby – who come together and sing works by famous composers and lyricists with some stories in between exploring the lives of the composer and the possible meaning behind the songs sung. As a format it works really well and when you throw in composers such as Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, then with Oscar Hammerstein and finally Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, well you can’t go wrong musically can you?
But, it really is more than the music that matters in this show. It is the people behind the tunes. I had heard of everyone of the composers/lyricists above but actually knew nothing about them – I didn’t even know any of them were Jewish. But two hours after entering the theatre to see The Great Jewish American Songbook, and thanks to writer Chris Burgess, I knew that: one of the composers regularly worked with P. G. Wodehouse (one of my all time favourite authors), one of them started playing the piano by teaching himself and, speaking of pianos’ the author of “I Love a Piano” couldn’t play one. It is all these little bits of personal history that really make the evening special.
Then there are the songs themselves, many of which were massively influenced by black music of the time and show the links between two races that, in their time, had been forced to move from their homeland, been made slaves and were now trying to assimilate themselves into another country. There were even songs that spoke of the future – such as Irving Berlin’s “Let’s face the music and dance”. Released in 1936 as the Nazi’s were rising to power in Europe, the lyrics could almost be seen as a portent for the future, enjoy life now, because bad things are coming.
The cast, under Musical Director Neil MacDonald, looked as if they were thoroughly enjoying themselves throughout and delivered first rate performances of the various songs and styles that ranged from “Putting on the Ritz” through “The Lady is a Tramp” to the, for me, highly emotional “Sabbath Prayer” My one gripe on the song choice – they didn’t do all of “Summertime” which is one of my own personal all time favourite songs ever. However, the rest of the songs – some of which was completely new to me – more than made up for that. My one request, please, please, please record a cast album of the whole show. I would love to be able to upset everyone on the bus to work singing along with these fabulous songs.
Overall, then The Great Jewish American Songbook is a wonderful excuse to forget all your troubles and woes. Two hours with some fabulous singers and musicians bringing awesome music to life and you won’t care about austerity, the Brexit, or if Man U will be changing manager soon. After seeing The Great Jewish American Songbook the only thing that will matter is the music and the people behind it, and if that isn’t a perfect way to spend an evening then I don’t know what is.
Review by Terry Eastham
THE GREAT JEWISH AMERICAN SONGBOOK
Presented by Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment
Written by Chris Burgess
Arrangements by Andy Collyer
Directed by Matthew Gould
BRAND NEW SHOW FROM THE COMPANY WHO BROUGHT YOU THE JEWISH LEGENDS IN 2015!
Jewish composers are credited with writing the musical background to American lives in the twentieth century. In a land of opportunity, they created a musical world of escapism and romance… and helped invent the American Dream. The Great Jewish American Songbook explores a century of song, featuring some of the greatest songwriters ever, including Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin and many more!
9th to 28th February 2016
Tuesdays – Saturdays 7.30pm
Sundays at 4pm
RUNNING TIME: 2 hours approx, inc. one 15-minute interval