Royal Academy of Music Musical Theatre Company – I feel a song coming on… was performed at the Royal Over-Seas League, London.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I feel a song coming on… is a cabaret celebrating the work of Dorothy Fields who at the tender age of 24 became a major Broadway figure with her lyrics for ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ and ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby’ which both became standards.
She was to write with a long list of composers, all of them men; there were other female lyricists in the theatre, though none of her stature, and virtually no female composers.
No wonder her father told her at the time: “ladies don’t write lyrics,” to which she retorted: “I’m not a lady, I’m your daughter!”
This anecdote is included in Conor McFarlane’s succinct narrative which opens by recalling a conversation that had taken place between Fields and Jerome Kern in 1936, when she suggested to the composer of Show Boat that her country needed cheering up after the depression.
So they wrote ‘Pick Yourself Up’ which introduces us to the 15-strong ensemble from the RAM Musical Theatre Company, each one of them a personality in their own right.
McFarlane reminds us that Dorothy Fields wrote the way people spoke, a point established in ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby’, a duet between Aaron Barriscale and Beth Clarence, which includes the line “diamond bracelets Woolworth doesn’t sell, baby”.
This rueful observation of realism and romance is a Fields trademark and it is touchingly put across by this young pair.
Muirgen O’Mahony creates a similar frisson with the lines: “Now we are one/I’m not afraid” from ‘I’m in the Mood For Love’.
Peter Noden is all smiles and assurance in ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ before the company moves onto a sequence from Hollywood movies.
We heard Fields’ fondness for music as a metaphor for love (‘I’m a Brass Band’) and as an expression of unfettered feelings (‘I Love to Cry At Weddings’ and ‘Today I Love Ev’rybody’), both tailor-made for the comedic potential of Oliver Williams.
Less familiar numbers come with ‘A Big Fat Heart’, and ‘There Must Be Something Better Than Love’, a Pearl Bailey speciality, sung by Niall Docherty.
Some neat word rhyming leads to a change on keyboard from Alex Beetschen to Guy Frati, and thence into a Jerome Kern sequence where the one shortcoming arises from the necessity of shoe horning so many fine songs into a medley.
We lose, for instance, that outlandish pay-off to ‘A Fine Romance’ (‘You’re just as hard to land as the Île de France/I haven’t got a chance/This is a fine romance), and a chance to linger over ‘Remind Me’, a little masterpiece.
If Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong is shortchanged here, she has her moment with ‘Nobody Does It Like Me’, a somewhat awkward song to handle, which she despatches with aplomb. Her performances and stage manner suggest a bright future.
In this Cy Coleman sequence, Pontus Henkel – along with the male ensemble – takes us to a darker place with ‘My City’, and in contrast Martha Pothen revives memories of Joyce Grenfell with ‘Do Be a Darling’, a song written for an aborted musical about Eleanor Roosevelt.
The singing by the company in the ensemble numbers – ‘Seesaw’, ‘Big Spender’ and ‘The Rhythm of Life’ – is polished and idiomatic.
The sequence from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a timely reminder of that joyous and dramatic score by Fields and Arthur Schwartz.
Jamie Chidzey has a ball singing about his ‘new broom’, while Magdalena Placek-Boryn sings the wistful ‘Make the Man Love Me’ with tender loving care.
Muirgen O’Mahony’s reminisces about her late husband in a song called ‘He Had Refinement’ is timed to perfection.
The evening is directed by George Hall whose love for these songs is manifest in his selections, his choice of singers to whom they are allocated, and their unforced performances delivered with no noticeable amplification.
For such a young company, it is a remarkable achievement.