Album Review: Sheridan Smith – Sheridan

“Feels like we could go on for forever this way”

Over the past decade, Sheridan Smith has established herself as one of the UK’s finest actresses. From comedies such as The Royle Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and Gavin & Stacey, she has graduated to BAFTA-winning success in Mrs Biggs, Cilla and this year’s exceptional The Moorside. And onstage, she’s a 4-time Olivier Award nominee and 2-time winner, being recognised for her work in both plays – Flare Path – and musicals – Legally Blonde. Now she has the music world in her sights as she releases her debut album Sheridan.

There’s returns to the material that has justly made her reputation. Her impassioned take on Cilla Black’s swinging ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ remains an absolute joy and a full-throated rendition of Funny Girl’s ‘My Man’ recalls the energy of her Fanny Brice. It feels she is most at home in the torch song arena though, and whether in the oldies (Timi Yuro’s ‘Hurt’, The Carpenters’ ‘Superstar’) or newer tracks (Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Dinner at Eight’), the tone of her lower register glows with charismatic warmth. With producer Tris Penna and co-producer, arranger and musical director Steve Sidwell, there’s a real appreciation for the collation of music that suits Smith and really does create a harmonious whole. Continue reading “Album Review: Sheridan Smith – Sheridan”

Album Review: Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs – Live at the Cafe Carlyle (2015)

“How could I behave as if we’d never met?”

 Recorded just after he completed his 2014/5 return to Cabaret at Studio 54, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs – Live at the Cafe Carlyle is one of the best cabaret records I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. Surprising but superb song selection, threaded through with a real sense of personality and personal revelation, draws the listener in right from the off, even if he storms just a fraction too quickly through Annie Lennox’s glorious solo hit ‘Why’, he next invests Keane’s ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ with a genuinely rueful quality that hints at what is to come.

And if the label ‘sappy’ might suggest something inconsequential, make no mistake that this is deeply emotional work. From Miley Cyrus’ ‘The Climb’ to the plangent ‘Complainte de la Butte’, to showier material that Cumming more obviously has an affinity with, like Kurt Weill’s ‘How Do Humans Live’ and the utterly gorgeous ‘You You You’ from Kander and Ebb’s The Visit, to the almost unbearable emotion underpinning the likes of Billy Joel’s ‘Goodnight Saigon’ and Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Dinner at Eight’. Continue reading “Album Review: Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs – Live at the Cafe Carlyle (2015)”

Album Review: Audra McDonald – Build a Bridge (2006)

“Your arias cause a stir in my sad and lonely heart”

Ringing the changes with her fourth album, Build a Bridge saw Audra McDonald take a break from the classic musical theatre songbooks she’d been exploring on her last two albums to turn to an altogether more contemporary world of rock and pop. There’s still room for some of the new musical theatre that she has tirelessly championed her whole career, of course there is, and there’s something utterly beguiling about the effortlessly modern feel of this collection.

That’s not to say that the selections are today’s Top 40 hits – Neil Young sits beside John Mayer, Randy Newman by Nellie McKay after all – but that Doug Petty’s arrangements and production style, together with that peerless soprano marries the material together in a beautiful way, that ultimately just celebrates the joy of good song-writing. Through McDonald here, one can trace how the timeless melodies of Bacharach and Costello’s ‘God Give Me Strength’ progress naturally to the chamber-pop of Rufus Wainwright’s charismatic ‘Damned Ladies’. Continue reading “Album Review: Audra McDonald – Build a Bridge (2006)”

TV Review: Shakespeare Live, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“I am a spirit of no common rate”

The culmination of the BBC’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was the 2 and a half hours of Shakespeare Live, a veritable landslide of multidisciplinary performances of and responses to his work. From theatre to opera, jazz to ballet, hip-hop to musicals, the enormous scope of his influence was showcased in a very well put together (royal) variety show (Charles and Camilla were in attendance) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and hosted by David Tennant and Catherine Tate.

And like anything with variety, a selection box or tub of Quality Street, there are the ones you love, the ones you can tolerate and the ones that you really don’t care for (the Bounty, or the purple hazelnutty one). And I have to say as impressive as they were, the dance, jazz and opera sections really didn’t do it for me whether Berlioz or Duke Ellington. I was predictably much more interested in the theatrical side of things, particularly as such an august cast of performers was in the offing along with the thrilling thought of a Dench and McKellen reunion. Continue reading “TV Review: Shakespeare Live, Royal Shakespeare Theatre”

CD Review: Renée Fleming – Christmas in New York

“I have no thought of time”

Opera star Renée Fleming has dipped her toe into non-classical repertoire before and though she was tempted to take the classical route for her Christmas album, it is to jazzy lounge music that she has turned with somewhat mixed results. Her voice remains an undoubted pleasure but the insistence on maintaining the Christmas in New York jazz clubs feel makes the arrangements all feel too similar and lacking as they are in festive spirit or a real connection to Fleming herself, it’s disappointingly nondescript.
Too often, the music just feels flat, with little engagement either between Fleming and the music, or between Fleming and her duet partners. The ever-reliable Kelli O’Hara has all her personality leached by the deadly pace of ‘Silver Bells’, the gulf in singing styles between her and Rufus Wainwright never settles in ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, the jazz take on ‘Winter Wonderland’ sits very uneasily with both Fleming and her instrumentalists with an unusual amount of awkwardness.

Where it does work is in the two numbers with Gregory Porter – ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ and ‘Central Park Serenade’ both showing a better vocal blend than anywhere else and a freedom of spirit on the latter in particular, a rare foray into something close to upbeat. ‘Sleigh Ride’ similarly offers a sprightly perkiness, albeit in an overextended manner, but the default mode of plodding sophistry weighs down songs like ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, ‘Merry Christmas Darling’ and ‘Snowbound’. More miss than hit.

Review: A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle, Royal Festival Hall

“And let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I’ll rise with it till I rise no more”

 A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle was a show of profound beauty and amazing music put together as part of the Southbank’s Meltdown Festival, curated this year by Richard Thompson, to commemorate the life of Kate who died of cancer earlier this year. She was part of a huge musical dynasty in her native Canada, part of the folk scene with her sister Anna, ex-wife of Loudon Wainwright III, but latterly probably more famous as the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright.

Over three hours, a huge number of people came together to remember a beloved mother, sister, aunt, colleague by teaming up and performing numbers from Kate & Anna’s back catalogue, ably supported by a hugely talented band. People like Nick Cave, Neil Tennant, Emmylou Harris, Teddy Thompson, Lisa Hannigan, Michael Ondaatje all gave their own unique contributions, paying tribute in their own special ways with her family members also chipping in, sister Jane on the piano, niece and nephew doing backing vocals on a huge number of songs and of course Rufus and Martha at the heart of everything. Continue reading “Review: A Celebration of Kate McGarrigle, Royal Festival Hall”

Review: Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna, Sadler’s Wells

“Come on Régine “

I’m not much of an opera-goer it must be said, but I have been a fan of Rufus Wainwright for a long time now and I have huge respect for people who fearlessly stretch their creative boundaries: names come to mind like Juliette Binoche taking on Akram Khan and dance in in-i, Damon Albarn’s own opera Monkey and even Graham Norton assuming the role of Zaza in La Cage aux Folles, these are artists willing to take risks in the face of harsh critics and a judgemental public, and I applaud them for following their creative instincts. To add to this list now is Rufus Wainwright, whose opera Prima Donna plays at Sadler’s Wells for four shows after its premiere in Manchester last year. It arrives in London though with a new director and a substantial redesign.

Prima Donna follows a day in the life of an opera singer, Régine Saint Laurent, who was the grande dame of Paris opera yet has not sung a note in six years after a crisis when performing Aliénor d’Aquitaine, a piece written for her especially. Sequestered away in a reclusive life with just a long-serving butler Philippe and a new maid Marie for company, she is struggling to face the demons that haunt her, yet a journalist André coming to interview awakens her desire to recapture her life on the stage. Continue reading “Review: Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna, Sadler’s Wells”