Reviewer: Charlotte Robson
Annaleigh Ashford – actress, singer and Tony award nominee – makes her arrival at Studio 54 amid a roaring guitar solo and a piano in full dramatic sing, promising an evening of hits old and new backed up by a personality with force to match the heights of the big voice of her Glinda, Margot and Jeanie. The voice and personality deliver, but sadly the songs themselves are not so consistent.
Ashford’s dramatic opening Donna Summer Medley encapsulates all the best of the evening. Incredible vocal versatility, passion, and superb bridging between the eclectic mix of songs show off not only her skill but a uniquely zany sense of fun. Ashford has a wonderful sense of self-awareness about her, something that lends her an easy, natural comic edge and timing and fills her short verbal breaks between songs with audible guffaws from the audience – and during the highlight of such moments, the Miss Kitt interlude, wherein Ashford recounts the beginning of her music and dance training under a brilliantly eccentric tutor, the listener will be hard pressed not to join in the laughter.
The song choices mirror the merry eccentricity of Ashford and her career, but much like the singer herself, the wackiness belies a deeper skill. A masterful mashup of Someone Like You / Crazy shows off not only Ashford’s vocal range, but also her respect for hits old and new, and the fearlessness of the mixup contrasts beautifully with the classical throwbacks – the highlight of which is a slow, melancholic rendition of Another Time.
However, one feels that Ashford may have peaked a little too early in her performance, for as the song list lengthens the passion and energy of the opening seems to have dribbled away. One song flows into the other with little to distinguish them, undercut too by the artistic decision to slow down and reduce the range of the music itself. While this serves to forefront Ashford’s voice, it deprives the songs of their own nature, and those that do not have any dramatic vocal leaps or particularly inspiring lyrics, such as Hand In My Pocket and Good Enough, suffer for it.
Some signs of life return when Ashford revives her performance as Glinda for a one-woman rendition of For Good, but deciding to have one woman sing a two woman song leaves the entire thing rather anaemic – more a downplayed busker’s rendition of a famous tune than anything like the dramatic, soaring Broadway masterclass one might have been expecting.
Even the audience involvement, however enjoyable in principle, occasionally obscures the central performance itself – particularly when they are invited to fill in words for what should have been a dramatic chorus, with varying degrees of enthusiasm each time. Ashford’s sense of fun and desire to entertain and engage are laudable, but the intent rather outstrips the result, and the music suffers as a result.
Nonetheless, though the performance is a rough cut, a gem it remains, buoyed by technical brilliance from Ashford’s supporting musicians, and the production finishes on a sweet, heartbreaking finale with Lost In The Stars that reminds the listener exactly why this recording was made in the first place; to showcase the life and voice of a very funny, deceptively clever, endearingly honest and extraordinarily talented woman.