Billy Stritch: My Musical Heroes continues at The Pheasantry, London, until 4 October.
Award-winning composer, arranger, vocalist and jazz pianist Billy Stritch is back in town and deserving of a far bigger audience than the meagre 20 who saw him open mid-week at The Pheasantry.
In the full-house Ronnie Scott’s audience the night before to hear the divine Ann Hampton Callaway, he would have welcomed a few of them for his return to the Kings Road cabaret room after a three-year absence, although he did play Crazy Coqs last year in a tribute show to Cy Coleman.
Coleman, the jazziest of the Broadway composers, is one of the musical heroes of the show’s title, along with the likes of Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Burton Lane, Johnny Mercer, Carolyn Leigh, Arthur Schwartz and, of course, those Great American Songbook legends Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II.
Stritch gives us a 90-minute masterclass in easy listening and effortlessly polished professionalism in putting his own spin on the work of those great names.
The time just floats by, the songs, well-known and not-so-well-known, interspersed with genial anecdotes about Judy Garland and Torme, both precocious child prodigies much as Texas-born Stritch was, although he didn’t get his start until playing piano in his local church at the age of 12.
Garland, we are told, was discovered by the aforementioned Lane as ‘Baby’ Gumm in the Gumm Sisters act when just four, the same age that crooner Torme made his paid debut – for $15 and free dinner for his family – in a white-and-blue sailor suit singing ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’.
That is one of several numbers associated with Torme that Stritch included in his Pheasantry act and listening to a man who accompanied Liza Minnelli for more than two decades and originally came to London, at Pizza on the Park, as part of the Montgomery, Plant & Stritch jazz vocal trio back in the 1980s when I first heard his piano wizardry, you learn plenty about the the art of cabaret and how to perform on stage with practised ease.
Stritch, always a thrilling pianist and accompanied only by Dave Olney on bass, makes a lovely job of Kern and Hammerstein’s ‘The Folks Who Live On The Hill’ and ‘You Stepped Out of a Dream’ which was the centrepiece of the 1941 musical Ziegfield Girl and was also added to the 2012 Chichester/London revival of Singin’ in the Rain.
As he is back in London, Stritch closes with what else but ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’, written for the 1940 musical New Faces, and you might win a few sidebets even among the musical theatre fraternity on who wrote the music for that evergreen. They will almost certainly know the words are by Eric Maschwitz but the name of Manning Sherwin, an American who had settled in London in 1938, as composer will surely catch out the vast majority.
Always worth listening to, Stritch remains here to support Marilyn Maye who is making her London debut at the age of 86 at Crazy Coqs next week, but he’s a classy turn in his own right and it’s a crying shame so few were at The Pheasantry to welcome him back.
They certainly got their money’s worth and this warm personality in turn did all he could to make them feel special.
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Interview – Billy Stritch and the art of cabaret