It is getting wintry in Sydney. On a Sunday afternoon in the ‘long, dark teatime of the soul’, the autumn leaves are floating down from a grey threatening sky. A perfect time to curl up with a familiar DVD or a well-thumbed novel. Or…..
Settle in with a hundred other music lovers to be transported to a Prohibition honky- tonk in the infamous Bowery section of early 1900s New York. There to raise a teacup of gin to the loved songs of Irving Berlin interpreted by the elusive Lucy Maunder. LUCY MAUNDER IN IRVING BERLIN: SONGS IN THE KEY OF BLACK was a delicious and warm afternoon’s entertainment.
Irving Berlin was a self-taught pianist who remained unable to read music despite rising from the Jewish ghetto of the New York’s Lower East side to be one of the great American songwriters. Responsible for so many well-known tunes, often written for the black keys because of his poor musicianship, his “God Bless America” is an unofficial national anthem.
What this show does so entrancingly is to balance the Irving Berlin songs we know well, “Blue Skies”, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” with the songs which, Maunder suggests, hide themselves away. “Yiddisher Nightingale”,” Mr Monotony”. Written by Nicholas Christo and directed by Neil Gooding, this intimate rendering puts Lucy Maunder’s voice on display and the venue suits the performance perfectly.
With an obvious love of the music, her voice can caress and envelop you at the lower range or send a shiver up your spine when she hits those clear, high notes. When she drops to her lower register to deliver ‘One little plaything carelessly broken’ (“Remember”) it’s earthy, rich and soulful and her interior world is on display.
Lucy Maunder is known for roles such as Rizzo in GREASE and Lara in DR ZHIVAGO, and has personality to spare when she is on a big stage but this show is simple and small and all about the music. She speaks gently when talking about the next song or the man’s work or the background to a piece.
As she softly introduces “What’ll I Do?” Berlin going home to his native Siberia, your mind begins the song and does its own piano intro. Then Maunder begins an acapella interpretation of the work and you feel like you are hearing it for the first time. The brilliant piano by musical director Isaac Hayward doesn’t sneak in until the second verse but by then you are hearing the music anew.
Not that Maunder only gives us the ballads. Jazzy treats like “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” are there. The latter is a magical interpretation as Maunder uses her physicality to considerable effect to presage the song. With her lithe limbs, she builds the narrow New York alleyways between the tall buildings and as her arms complete the height of the skyscrapers you are drawn up in your seat.
In the same way, aided by a great lighting state, she pulls you toward her for “How Deep Is the Ocean?” when she sits still on her black stool. Her mysterious face is in spotlight as the blue smoke curls around her. Sinuous in a tight black dress she is the ultimate sensuous songstress.
Her fun side makes an appearance too. After interpreting “All By Myself” standing in front of the microphone with hands on hips, she flashes that cheeky smile at the pianist before moving on. And the ending of the show is tightly written with a lightness of touch that leaves you laughing and wanting more.
Luckily, LUCY MAUNDER IN IRVING BERLIN: SONGS IN THE KEY OF BLACK is available on CD and iTunes download and I feel sure that there will be some more warm autumn Sundays spent enjoying this wonderful music.
LUCY MAUNDER IN IRVING BERLIN: SONGS IN THE KEY OF BLACK played at the Hayes Theatre, Potts Point until April 12th.
For more about Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black, visit http://www.hayestheatre.com.au/coming-soon/lucy-maunder-in-irving-berlin-songs-in-the-key-of-black.html