The Hayes Theatre has quickly become a home to a host of cabaret shows, ranging from career retrospective to tribute to original narrative to bildungsroman and everything in between, and it’s that level of contrast that makes their programming so compelling. Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black has lived a life outside the Hayes, but it settles nicely into the intimate Potts Point space.
It’s a Prohibition-era sing-song, so lightly placed in the appropriate era that you barely notice it’s there, until Maunder reminds us that drinks cost ten cents and her teacups are full of gin. It’s a pleasant framework because it barely exists. The book, by Nicholas Christo, isn’t much of a book at all, and in that respect it has a little less heft than other cabarets in Sydney of late.
This can be forgiven to a point, because when you’re spending an hour or so with the songs of Irving Berlin, you start to feel ungrateful for complaining. Berlin, who wrote about 1,500 songs in his career, is one of the strongest influencers of modern pop music: his sentimentalities are direct and universally phrased, with that blend of broad, general notions dipped with authenticating specificities.
He wrote music that was simply and elegantly phrased, emotive, and just-so: perfect for lovers, really. If you don’t think you know his songs, you’re probably wrong: they’ve been sung by hundreds and hundreds of artists, and he’s all over Broadway and the Great American Songbook.
Maunder for the most part is a good interpreter for these songs that have become standards, seeped into the Western consciousness. She has a pleasing, supple tone that serves the songs well. She delves deeply into some songs, and less so into others. Her “Cheek to Cheek” is as spry as Astaire’s footwork in Top Hat and her “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is fun and accessible.
“What’ll I Do” feels a little overwrought, but the feeling behind “After You Get What You Want, You Don’t Want It” lands right where it should.
It’s slightly uneven, but again, it’s hard to mind; Maunder is a good personality and a sweet voice to spend a little time with.
The time passes by quickly, though it never feels breakneck fast (thanks to a good internal sense of the shape of the show, helmed by Neil Gooding), which is doubly impressive considering the songs within the show are quite short; it’s easy to give yourself over to the experience.
Maunder is accompanied by her Musical Director, Isaac Heyward, whose effortlessness with piano is never once downplayed or under-aprpeciated. He supports Maunder with a lovely generosity and liveliness that’s more than repaid in full when she faux-grudglingly awards him the spotlight in their take on “I Love a Piano,” easily the most alive and exciting part of the show.
It’s a little bit like a dream, this cabaret: you take your seat, let the music weave its magic around you, softly permeating the corners of your mind. And then you walk out of the theatre, blink against the sudden harshness of the light, the hardness of life, and move on. Maybe not changed, but with something settled inside, the thing that holds out for a little beauty. Maunder and her show give that gift to all who attend.