Rhythm of Life: Cy Coleman – a Celebration in Song at St James Studio Theatre, London.
Rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
As the composer of musicals including Sweet Charity, Barnum and City of Angels, Cy Coleman has contributed more than his fair share of numbers to the Great American Songbook. This new revue collects some of the most well-known songs from Coleman’s multi-decade career to produce a song cycle that is a fitting tribute.
Any such revue stands or falls on the ability of its performers and it’s here where Rhythm of Life succeeds. Marti Webb scores the first big success of the evening with her rendition of ‘You Can Always Count On Me’ from City of Angels, while her performance of Sweet Charity’s ‘Where Am I Going?’ is full of hope and expectation. And with one of several Coleman songs that will be new to British audiences, Webb imbues ‘You There in the Back Row’ (from 13 Days to Broadway, a show about a troubled musical that has its own troubled history) with such emotion that it feels criminal that the song is not better known.
Matching Webb for her ability to wring the best of the composer’s songs written for women, Debbie Kurup makes her first good impression with ‘The Oldest Profession’ from The Life. Sung by a prostitute who claims she is getting too old for the game, Kurup captures the light-hearted nature as well as the twinges of self-doubt, despite being clearly far too young for the role.
The two women are so strong in this revue that accomplished cabaret performer John Barr is sometimes overshadowed – a sign of the excellence on display rather than any fault of his. It is Barr who provides the bedrock of the show’s many duets, from working with Webb on Barnum’s ‘The Colours of My Life’ and Kurup on ‘Our Private World’ from On the Twentieth Century. He is no slouch in his solo numbers either, from ‘There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute’ to ‘Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like’. But his best performance is as part of a trio that brings life to ‘You’re Nothing Without Me’, where City of Angels’ fictional characters argue with their writer. Barr and Kurup verbally spar with Cedric Neal in a number that highlights everything that makes a great Cy Coleman number: jazz stylings, beautiful melodies and joyfully constructed lyrics (in this case, by David Zippel).
Indeed, it is Cedric Neal who provides the meatiest contribution to this celebratory evening. From the Sinatra stylings of ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘The Best is Yet to Come’ to the exuberance of ‘Come Follow the Band’ and the high camp of ‘I Love to Cry at Weddings’, Neal’s soulful voice brings out the best in Coleman’s music, his American vocal stylings perfectly suited to the composer’s jazz roots.
His final two solo numbers, ‘Use What You Got’ and ‘The Day You Leave Me’, are the high watermark of an already excellent show. And that’s even before the closing sequence of songs from Sweet Charity, Coleman’s greatest achievement and a musical that has been threaded throughout the evening. Culminating in the faux-gospel stylings of the revue’s title number, ‘Rhythm of Life’, it leaves the audience in no doubt as to the eternal excellence of Cy Coleman.
Special credit is due to musical director Michael Webborn, whose solo piano is able to provide the verve and power to songs that more traditionally require a big band sound. In the opening numbers of Act II, he also demonstrates an impressive vocal quality that deserves to be heard more often. He also lends his voice to a series of pre-recorded narrations that, while initially feeling a little odd compared to the alternative of having an onstage narrator, help keep the show running at a cracking pace.
While this new song cycle has had just a two-night outing at the St James Studio, there is so much quality on display here that longer runs in future seem a certainty.