Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Gary Bland was a regular on the London amateur cabaret circuit for just a handful of years before making the crossover to the world of professional performing.
His West End stage debut, at the ripe old age of 51, was as an ugly sister in Cinderella Boom or Bust at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane – in at the deep end, you could say. He subsequently made his debut as a lead in Damn Yankees at the Landor Theatre a year later in 2014, and took on the role of Aimable the Baker in The Baker’s Wife at the Drayton Arms in 2015.
The Stepney-born late-starter also fronted a one-man tribute to his idol, Johnny Mathis, and it’s with this cabaret show – a sell-out at the Crazy Coqs entitled Mr Romantic – that Bland makes his Edinburgh Fringe debut.
Johnny Mathis is, for me, one of those singers that you can’t really dislike. In this sense, he’s not like Marmite! But he’s certainly a performer with an incredibly dedicated following (and seemingly women of a certain age; my mother likes him).
I’d assumed he was dead – sorry, Johnny, I now know you’re alive and well! And even though in terms of record sales he’s only been outsold by Elvis and Sinatra, I wasn’t able to name one song of his. Or so I thought. Listening to Bland serving up hit after hit, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I knew more than I thought I did: ‘Once in a Lifetime’, ‘Misty’, ‘A Certain Smile’ and – the biggie – “When a Child is Born”.
Bland’s warm tone and crystal clear voice is perfectly suited to Mathis. His vocals are well controlled and, in this show, given a lot of dynamic range – especially at the top end of his tenor voice – thanks to a microphone (which, actually, he really didn’t need in the beautiful acoustic of St Marks).
He’s also incredibly likeable as a performer: natural and relaxed, welcoming and inclusive. He even handed out some Love Hearts, the romantic old devil!
Mr Romantic is not an impersonation act – indeed, on most counts, Bland and Mathis are chalk and cheese, as he readily admits at the start of the show – but he genuinely embodies the feelings and emotions of Mathis’ songs. And with little adoring looks and smiles towards his wife Debbie in the audience, you can tell that he means every word of what he’s singing.
Bland also has a great rapport with his excellent MD Kate Young, and the two ping off each other nicely, adding much-needed character and personality to the show.
Obviously, this is a cabaret for the die-hard Mathis fans, but if you wanted to know more about the man, this potted biography and vocal highlights are a perfect introduction. A couple of the audience left in tears (in a good way) – Bland’s encore of ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Misérables (recorded by Mathis in 2000) was particularly moving – so he’s keeping the fans happy. Musically, it’s a bit uniform for my tastes, but that’s Mathis for you: a classic crooner.
In this sense, it’s nice that Mr Romantic extends the reach of the Edinburgh Fringe, drawing a crowd that would perhaps not be particularly catered for at the otherwise usually zany, intense and youth-oriented festival. It’s actually a breath of fresh air and a chance to sit back, relax and let these lovely songs wash over you for an hour.