Edinburgh Academy Junior School – until 13 August 2021
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
A Grand Night For Singing, the showcase for the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein conceived by Walter Bobbie and restaged for the International Festival by Kim Criswell, is a wonderfully tuneful affair. Bursting with humour and bonhomie, it is attractive and occasionally infuriating.
A word must be said immediately about the venue, which is exactly the place to reassure anyone who is feeling a little hesitant about attending a live event after so long. An aircraft hangar-sized tent covering most of the playing fields at the Edinburgh Academy Junior School not only has enough ventilation to ensure the audience keep their coats on, but also has the seats spaced fully two metres apart in every direction.
This does not necessarily enhance the listening or viewing experience in other ways, however. While the sound system makes everything audible enough, the separation of the instruments is less than sharp. The singing is wonderfully clear, however, making the supertitles redundant, although they do give those sections of the audience in a different post code from the stage something else to look at.
To be fair, sightlines from all areas of the audience are impeccable, and overall it is difficult to see how the staging could have been done any better under the circumstances.
Almost anything could have been put up on this stage and satisfied an audience so starved of live music, so it is pleasing to report that the end result is thoroughly professional and extremely attractive.
A Grand Night For Singing is, however, an odd beast in many ways. First staged in 1993 by director and choreographer Bobbie, it uses over 30 tunes from different works by Rodgers and Hammerstein in a musical revue format. Although the Festival publicity says it creates a ‘moving new storyline’ and the performers are given character names, to describe the book as minimal would be to pay it a compliment.
There is definitely a shape to proceedings – including a clear division into acts that is ignored here. However, any storyline is sketchy at best, and not particularly sensible – far better just to enjoy the songs. There are several that you would expect, such as a particularly noteworthy chorus version of Some Enchanted Evening, but also many less predictable choices. Suffice it to say that if you are excited at the thought of hearing selections from State Fair, Pipe Dream or Me And Juliet then you probably already have a ticket for this.
Not that such lesser-known items come off second best – All At Once You Love Her from Pipe Dream is another well-judged chorus piece, while Anna-Jayne Casey’s high kicks and splits on It’s Me from Me and Juliet are a particular showstopper.
The staging by Criswell, while restrained at times, does work well, with Criswell also providing wonderfully strong and dramatic vocals. The other singers are equally commanding. The energetic Casey and Damian Humbley supply humour; Richard Morrison and Danielle de Niese, while more from the lyric or operatic end of the concert music spectrum, prove themselves remarkably versatile.
The flashes of humour and inventive staging are often attractive, but they do not always work. The recasting of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? as a plea by Humbley from a psychiatrist’s couch is clever, and Shall We Dance? amuses, but whether several references to Uber drivers do anything to enhance The Surrey with the Fringe on Top is quite another matter.
It is generally better-known songs that are so treated; noticeably, those standards that are left largely unadorned – Criswell’s super-spirited I Cain’t Say No, Morrison’s gorgeously emotional This Nearly Was Mine from South Pacific– work best. Otherwise, the determination to avoid excess sentimentality means that some songs come across as flippant. This leads to real danger of bending under the weight both of one Hammerstein metaphor too many and of one more unnecessary costume change.
The musical backing, led by the excellent Wayne Marshall, is thoroughly accomplished, despite the occasionally muddy acoustic. Once again, it is best when played straight, with a couple of attempts to jazz things up a little coming off a trifle stiff.
The pace and drive of the show does mean, however, that if a joke falls flat, or a number does not quite convince, there will soon be another one zipping along.
Despite protestations to narrative, this is really one of those familiar ‘songs from the shows’ affairs. If that does not seem like natural International Festival material, it is done with such grace and skill that it is difficult to feel much but warmth towards it.
Running time 1 hour 40 minutes (no interval)
Part of the Edinburgh international Festival
Edinburgh Academy Junior School, 10 Arboretum Road, EH3 5PL
Sunday 8 – Friday 13 August 2021
7.30 pm (Sun 8, Tues 10, Thurs 12, Fri 13)
3.00 pm (Tues 10)
Information and tickets at https://www.eif.co.uk/events/a-grand-night-for-singing