FringeReview UK 2019
Sharon Elizabeth and Paul Lewis gave a Recital ’Soprano Lets Her Hair Down’ in a set ranging from Novello through Prévert/Kosma and Bernstein to Lewis’s own compositions.
‘Best three pounds I’ve ever spent’ said the woman next to me. That sums up this wonderful recital. Known for her sequences including resérché cabaret (a memorable one here in 2017 of banned songs entitled ‘Forget-Me-Not’) and quirkier as well as more straightforward sequences, Soprano Sharon Elizabeth with composer/pianist Paul Lewis have the rare gift of mining rarities and minting them. Elizabeth describes herself as an entertainer and soprano: don’t think this means the slightest dilution
Elizabeth and Lewis are a pretty remarkable partnership. Elizabeth found herself in new Zealand as a cake-maker and at thirty decided to sing, trained by Kiri ti Kanawa’s teacher. He soprano range is glowing – and glowing, since she now touches a lower register she didn’t have she declares in her earlier career. Seizing a lighter programme allows her to use everything she has: a ringing top, expressive coloratura, sashaying from classic to jazz in a blink, and vivacious stage presence. Communicative, confiding, chatty even, she’s sexy and knows it; and sends this up too.
Lewis – dubbed by the late Dennis Nordern a ‘legend of light music’ – has many recordings of his compositions to his credit, including numerous film scores. If you’ve a Naxos compilation of English string miniatures, or other compilations of more tonal contemporary music, chances are you’ll have one of his. Recently he wrote a Fanfare for his hero Richard III.
This is Elizabeth’s sequence of ‘Soprano Lets Her Hair Down’ and she did. They started off with Loewe and Lerner’s ‘I could have danced all night’ from My Fair Lady – an exuberant entertainment from Elizabeth establishing not only her vocal pyrotechnics but sheer stage verve. She has the knack of capturing the character of the song – in this case a kind of girly innocence and discovery which nicely bookended with the Bernstein near the end of the recital.
Then followed a jazzy song of Dilys John’s to sashay into the swing of the rest – the alternation of jazz comedy and popular sentiment was nicely placed.
Is Novello’s ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ kitsch? Am I? Elizabeth asks. Well no, it’s a swoopingly romantic piece she brings out the warmth and full projections of and recovers too the emotions rather than their nostalgic shadow. As with a couple of others, Elizabeth encourages audience participation. She doesn’t really get it: people want to listen.
There’s a jazzy piano piece of Lewis’s written that in 1997 acquired words. It’s all about sexual disappointment with a twist. ‘Shall I sing it?’ Elizabeth had asked Lewis, and he answered. ‘It’s Brighton.’ Well there’s all sorts of adroit unmentionables in it.
Elizabeth worked at an Italian restaurant where she was also permitted to sing – and the proprietor Luigi made sure diners shut up and listened. ‘Neapolitan Song’ was for him, a standard and very nice too. Elizabeth proves she can fine down and deliver a melting, simple piece but here with operatic top-notes and a projection from the stage over the more restrained folk style some might use – because it’s Italian and the style demands it.
The heart of this recital was the classic 1945 Prévert/Kosma ‘Feuilles mortes’ which Lewis introduced with a fine intricate plate and Elizabeth sang with perfect French, and plangent regret. The sweep of the refrain is overwhelming and Elizabeth’s description of this as on of the greatest melodies doesn’t sound hyerpbolic. Her rendition’s never overblown, not hurried but at the same time authoritative and spellbinding in its lyrical restraint.
One of Lewis’s songs was inspired by hearing Elizabeth singing in the shower just as they got together: he was leaving to buy provisions. At the store he realized he was into the second verse, abandoned shopping and rushed back to complete his song. ‘The Soprano in the Shower’. It’s on the jazzy light end of his spectrum and in Elizabeth’s originating voice a feast of coloratura comedy – and – she’s added a When Harry Met Sally moment she declares she sings more rapidly each time. We all had what she was having.
Bernstein’s West Side Story is a quarry for showstoppers. ‘I feel pretty’ is witty, touchingly funny in a girl’s discovery of love and sexuality – celebrating herself in Whitman’s phrase. Elizabeth whoops this up as a thrilling climax, and as prelude to the built-in encore. This was another Lewis standard, the name of it vanishing upwards like the voice. Superb. Anything Elizabeth and Lewis perform is worth a detour.