Liza Pulman is on a mission to break your heart or make it sing with her new show playing for a week at Riverside Studios based on the album she released in 2019. This tour show for The Heart of It, delayed by covid, is dedicated to less well-known songs, music Pulman believes should be better appreciated and loved. It prioritises female songwriters and proves an eclectic if not always consistent mix of Pulman’s preferred jazz, pop and the odd Bond classic.
Pulman, who has performed whole shows dedicated solely to Barbara Streisand, has many of the same vocal qualities, a velvety huskiness that suits the melancholic jazzy numbers that she likes to perform. Here, in fact, there are two particular Streisand numbers that work beautifully, The Way We Were and the particularly emotive I Never Meant to Hurt You written by Laura Nyro in 1968 which Pulman recalls hearing 20-years later for the first time at the Donmar Warehouse. But the Streisand quality flows through other numbers too, from the stirring My Favourite Year that lingers in the air after Pulman has held the final note and the equally lovely Come in From the Rain, songs that really showcase Pulman’s connection to the emotional, as well as the musical, beats of the song.
Elsewhere in this two hour and fifteen-minute show, the musical choices are less effective or become a little predictable as the evening unfolds. With a six-piece band and instruments ranging from electric guitar to double bass, drums to saxophone, musical director Joseph Atkins often overcomplicates the melody, creating a barrage of sounds the competes with and sometimes distracts from the emotional effect of the songs and impact of Pulman’s voice. If I Only Had a Brain from The Wizard of Oz and A Sleepin’ Bee in Act One get lost in their arrangements as too many sounds create a slightly messy effect.
This is scaled back in Act Two and the haunting quality of many of the song choices creates more space for the vocal, at least for a first verse before a tone changes create a bigger song. But it is in the heartbreak numbers that Pulman’s vocal is at its best with just keyboard accompaniment. It is the jazz numbers where the full band make their mark including Sylvia Fine’s Lullaby in Ragtime and even Billy Joe’s New York State of Mind.
Pulman has really plundered the archive for her song set and this concert makes connections between songs from the 1920s to the 1980s. She makes a strong case for their revival and showcases many that the audience of all ages may not have heard before or fully appreciated including Pulman’s favourite musician Fats Waller, who contributes Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now and I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling to the programme.
Throughout, Pulman proves a gracious and grateful host, sharing anecdotes about breadmaking in lockdown, the personal meanings of many of the songs, her boarding school experience and college encounters with Daniel Craig and an iced bun – leading to an appropriate rendition of Nobody Does it Better. Liza Pulman: The Heart of It is not a perfect show, but it is a very pleasant one with a performer who couldn’t be happier to be back on stage.
Runs until 30 April 2022