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Sunday in Guildford with Jule, Jerry and Steve (and Janie)

Janie Dee. Photo: Pamela Raith.
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As if the theatre diary wasn’t routinely packed enough – and performers, at least those in work, already stretched enough – hardly a Sunday goes by without finding me (and them) at some event or other either introducing emerging writers or celebrating more famous ones.

Last week I wrote here of spending last Sunday celebrating first some new British musical voices at the Cockpit, followed by an evening at the St James that introduced the tuneful emerging US team of Kerrigan and Lowdermilk. That’s the kind of investment in the future of musical theatre  of time and commitment – that will no doubt pay dividends in the future for audiences as well as performers, and I’m delighted when I’m able to be part of the journey.

But sometimes you also just want to bask in the glory of Broadway at its best, and last night at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud, the brilliant young musical director Alex Parker – in a break from his usual night job as assistant musical director on Stephen Ward – put together a musically ravishing evening in celebration of the music of Jule, Jerry and Steve.

If you need to ask Jule who, you probably wouldn’t go anyway; and you may well have come to the wrong blog. It is, of course, Jule Styne, the composer of those 1950s classics Bells Are Ringing and Gypsy, as well as Funny Girl that made a star of Barbra Streisand. Last night, Bonnie Langford – who starred as Baby June in the West End’s only production so far of the show back in 1973 at the Piccadilly, in a production that starred Angela Lansbury as Mama Rose – showed how much has grown up in the years since by tearing into a version of ‘Some People’. She also told a great story about Jule Styne getting himself banned from the theatre for jumping into the orchestra pit to insist that the trumpet line be played differently.

But chat was otherwise kept very short, and the evening concentrated mainly on the music. And with some of the West End’s finest on hand to sing the songs, that was fine by me: the generosity of performers lending their time and talent to these events is always a source of astonishment, not least for the fact that Janie Dee is invariably amongst them. Just the other week, she began rehearsals by day for the forthcoming West End production of Blithe Spirit (again coincidentally to star Angela Lansbury), before going to the St James Theatre to star in Putting it Together (another project originated in Guildford by Alex Parker), then onto a late night cabaret at the Pheasantry. Does she never stop working?

The Steve of Jule, Jerry and Steve, of course, is Sondheim, and Dee was joined by her other Putting it Together cast mates Damian Humbley (one of our finest male singers in musicals today), Daniel Crossley (one of our niftiest movers), Caroline Sheen and David Bedella to recreate a moment from that show, plus offer other solo contributions. But Janie Dee – whose praises I’ve often sung in this blog – is the performer who uniquely straddles the world of Sondheim and Jerry Herman (the third composer being celebrated last night). She has the knowing waspishness that’s perfect for Sondheim, but also the open sincerity that is ideal for Herman; you don’t usually hear these two composers mentioned in the same breath, as they’re seemingly polar opposites on the Broadway spectrum. But there’s a place where they happily coincide, and last night it was in Dee’s jubilant performances.

But it was great also to see new faces amongst the regular throng, like Killian Donnelly – the find of the current West End production of The Commitments, who revealed a classical musical theatre voice rumbling below the rock one he uses there. Amongst the younger guard, Fra Fee, Alistair Brammer, Anna O’Byrne and Laura Pitt-Pulford all made strong impressions, as ever; while Lucy Schaufer and Samantha Spiro brought their greater maturity to add class and authority.

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