THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Brent Barrett: Life Is – The Songs of Kander and Ebb
The Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zedel, 20 Sherwood St, London W1F 7ED
To January 24, 2015
Broadway star Brent Barrett returned to Crazy Coqs to premiere a new show where he celebrates the 50 year partnership of composer John Kander and his lyricist, the late, Fred Ebb.
Barrett, with his matinee–idol good looks, is steeped in Kander and Ebb’s work having played Billy Flynn in the Broadway revival of Chicago on and off for the past 16 years. He’s also starred on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun, Grand Hotel, West Side Story and Candide, did two years as the Phantom in Las Vegas and won an Olivier award here, as well as great acclaim, in Kiss Me Kate.
This show follows on from his 1999 CD of their music which he recorded with Mr Kander himself on the piano. Here he gave us songs from Zorba, Cabaret, Steel Pier, Scottsboro Boys, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Rink, Flora the Red Menace and Over and Over. He then brings us bang up to date with songs from The Visit, written in 2001 but only getting its Broadway premiere later year with Chita Rivera.
That show is based on Durrenmatt’s dark revenge tragedy. As Barrett pointed out, Kander and Ebb have never been shy of dark subjects: the rise of Nazism in Cabaret, the imprisonment of gays and dissidents in South America in Kiss of the Spider Woman, murder and corruption in Chicago or the ‘hanging court’ faced by 9 black teenagers falsely accused of rape in 1930s Alabama in The Scottsboro Boys. Balancing the light and the dark while delivering incredibly catchy tunes is their signature achievement.
Barrett has a real affinity with their work and his informed perspective made this well–judged and perfectly polished show very special. Piano accompaniment from Christopher Denny was also top notch. Barrett is a true devotee of theirs, one who was lucky enough to also become a friend. He shares Kansas roots with Kander and was funny about the brash New Yorker, Ebb, giving him advice on how to put over one of their songs. He phones him up the morning after a concert where he sang ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’ from Over and Over, worried about how a song went down and chides him: “I could have given you some hand gestures!”
Barrett’s voice is perfect instrument for musical theatre and it has gotten darker and better with age. A rich, yet light, baritone he can effortlessly move from a belter like ‘Willkommen’ or ‘New York New York’ to a tender and poignant interpretation of ‘My Colouring Book’ (a Streisand classic) or ‘A Quiet Thing’ (written for Liza Minnelli) both of which would just break your heart. He has a great actor’s instinct for how to interpret a lyric and the vocal equipment to deliver it but, most importantly, he has something you can’t be taught, good taste. He has exquisite restraint, often an undiscovered country for musical theatre singers trying out in cabaret rooms.
Medleys, a personal bete–noire of mine, were even redeemed with his interpretation of three songs from the show The Happy Time (‘Walking Among My Yesterdays’/’The Happy Times’/ ‘Seeing Things’. The lead part in that show calls for a suave, cosmopolitan, mature, gentleman. Barrett dropped a heavy hint that he’d be perfect casting for a revival. I agree.