There’s Nothin’ Like a Dame – Cadogan Hall, London

Musical Director: Adam Hoskins

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

This one-off concert was, as emcee Lucy Dreaver reminded us on more than one occasion, a celebration of one hundred years of women in musical theatre.

The reasoning for the rounding to an exact century is not clear – there’s certainly nothing in the 1918 musical calendar of particular note, unless one wishes to celebrate the abundance of exclamation points in Jerome Kern’s Oh, Lady! Lady!!. Nor, too, were musicals in the preceding years male only.

But that’s all by the by, as it’s an excuse to celebrate some of the songs written for actresses by musical writers from Cole Porter to Sara Bareilles. Producers Lambert Jackson, whose co-founder Jamie Lambert won Britain’s Got Talent as part of musical theatre performing group Collabro, assembled a quite frankly superb quartet of performers for their debut show: Wicked alumnae Louise Dearman, Alexia Khadime and Rachel Tucker, along with musical theatre stalwart (and Norma Desmond extraordinaire) Ria Jones.

Adopting a chronological running order, the show opened with Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (whose authorship in 1934 belies the idea of a whole century being celebrated), the entire quartet demonstrating a liveliness and mutual admiration that would continue to permeate the rest of the show.

As one might expect, the first half of a chronological run through musical theatre history came to have a first half dominated by Richard Rodgers – from Ria Jones’ beguiling performance of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered from Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey to a four-song sequence of Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers. And while the message behind Oklahoma!’s I Cain’t Say No – in which a woman finds herself unable to reject any man’s advances – is not exactly the most feminist message on display, it did at least signal a turning point in musical history, which saw many an R&H musical feature strong, independently minded women.

That blossoming of female roles in the mid 20th century is called out by Dreaver after the Rodgers and Hammerstein sequence, albeit while introducing numbers from Gypsy (burlesque dancer strips for the entertainment of men) and Oliver! (woman sings ballad about returning and returning to the abusive husband who would ultimately kill her). But while the politics of the characters may be in dispute, the performance of the songs is not: Ria Jones’s Rose’s Turn is magnificent, while Rachel Tucker brought back memories of her emergence in the BBC series I’d Do Anything with a performance of As Long As He Needs Me that far outshone anything she or any of the other contestants accomplished on that show, and which demonstrates how far she has come in the years since.

Also in Act I, newcomer Daisy Greenwood – a 17-year-old musical theatre student who won a competition to join the evening’s bill – brought the house down with a performance of Don’t Rain On My Parade that performers twice her age would struggle to match.

After Act I closes with a steamy, hilarious rendition of Big Spender by the show’s quartet of performers, the second act concentrates on more modern musicals. Numbers from The Wiz and Jekyll and Hyde (Khadime’s Home from the former being one of the most beautiful renditions of a song which has become a standard of cabaret performers) nestle alongside some of the genre’s biggest hitters – from Dearman’s beautiful rendition of I Dream a Dream from Les Misérables to Jones and Tucker’s powerful duet of I Know Him So Well, the breakout hit song from Chess .

But the midpoint of Act 2 also becomes its high point, as Jones reprises her role as Norma Desmond in a belting rendition of Sunset Boulevard’s With One Look. Prompting the first standing ovation of the evening, Jones demonstrated just why those people who had paid to see Glenn Close in the West End revival but instead saw her got the better end of the deal.

As the evening drew close to the modern day, it was perhaps inevitable that the three former Elphabas on stage united for a number from Wicked. Their rendition of The Wizard and I was definitely a crowd pleaser, and clearly the number which many of the paying audience had come to see.

And despite this evening being amount women in musical theatre, it is notable how many songs, including that one, come to be dominated by men – wanting them, loving them, not rejecting them when that would be the most sensible course of action. This chronological traipse through the musical theatre songbook does indicate that it’s easier to find songs of genuine female empowerment the closer you get to the modern day.

There may not be a Bechdel Test for musical theatre cabaret (if there was, it would be “Does this evening contain any songs from Fun Home?”, a test this evening sadly fails). But the show’s final two numbers, a beautifully winsome rendition of She Used to Be Mine from Waitress by Dearman before a barnstorming finale number of Let It Go, demonstrate that the future for women in musical theatre – both on stage and as part of the writing process – is rosy.

Here’s to the next hundred(ish) years.

There’s Nothing Like a Dame was performed on August 30.

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