BWW Review: JENNA RUSSELL WITH SETH RUDETSKY, Leicester Square Theatre
West End favourite Jenna Russell made a surprisingly belated solo concert debut at Leicester Square Theatre, but, judging by this entirely winning performance, she's a natural.
Seth Rudetsky, unparalleled master of the format, was on hand to accompany and guide her through a superlative set list, as well as draw out anecdotes both deliciously foul-mouthed and funny, and unexpectedly moving.
Russell took us back to her musical origins: her stepdad's tape collection, which included both West Side Story (cue skirt-swishing) and Judy Garland. That enduring Judy love inspired her opening number, "San Francisco", delivered with jazzy panache and a hint of spot-on mimicry - the latter an enjoyable feature throughout the two-hour show.
While still a teenager, fresh from Sylvia Young, Russell went into the truly amazing-sounding Abbacadabra at Lyric Hammersmith - featuring, yes, the music of ABBA, plus an eclectic company including Elaine Paige, a young Nigel Harman and Dexter Fletcher, Sylvester McCoy and Phil Daniels.
Several people had warned that the great Elaine Paige could be difficult, but, finding nothing of the kind, Russell cornered her a few weeks in and (this anecdote alone worth the price of admission) cheerfully said: "It's really nice to meet you, because everyone told me you're a c*nt!".
Follies began her long collaboration with Stephen Sondheim, playing Young Sally in the Eighties revival. Rudetsky gamely joined her for the fiendish duet "Love Will See Us Through", and then Russell sank more comfortably into a superb rendition of "Losing My Mind" - husky with emotion, intimately confessional.
She recalled speaking to Sondheim, who was gutted that his "love letter to London", Sweeney Todd, had been swallowed up by the vast Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and thus not appreciated. On a lighter note, Eartha Kitt was clearly quite the character during her time in Follies - including an aviary in her dressing room, and one glass of pre-show Champagne too many on occasion...
Russell's history with Les Miserables is almost as tortured as the show itself, beginning with a failed audition for Cosette (inexplicably, she picked the mature "Losing My Mind", prompting a snide Trevor Nunn retort to try something younger - though "not 'Tomorrow' from Annie young"). Her best mate Frances Ruffelle had more luck.
She eventually understudied Eponine, but never went on. Three years later, she got a call from the company manager asking her to be on standby, as both covers were sick. At 6pm, while in a pub with her mum, she discovered she was needed. All went well, but since she wasn't on the official payroll, her night ended - somewhat dodgily - with the company manager handing her an envelope with £200 cash.
Finally, she took over as Fantine, and so we were treated to a sterling rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream", full of depth and vocal colour - plus the amusing tale afterwards of her deciding to keep her eyes open when Fantine died, much to the consternation of her Valjean and Javert trying to do the confrontation scene around her.
Russell's time in Guys and Dolls gave us a thoroughly relatable anecdote about kissing Ewan McGregor, and a gorgeously giddy, warm, loving "If I Were A Bell", illustrating Sarah's ecstatic release.
Sunday in the Park with George prompted a more cathartic moment, as Russell was momentarily overcome when recalling how her difficulties getting pregnant made a particular lyric, proclaiming that what really matters is "children and art", speak to her in a very personal way. Adorably, at this point her 10-year-old daughter piped up "I love you, Mum!" from the audience.
Russell reprised "Like It Was" with similar sensitivity from another winning Sondheim collaboration, Merrily We Roll Along. The great man apparently came to previews and was the perfect audience, reports Russell, since he's genuinely interested in seeing what you do with the work. Just don't mess around with his lyrics...
Rudetsky astutely observed that, though Russell has wonderful comic energy, she seems drawn to the dramatic. Russell responded that she loves the mixture of the two, as was evident in a beautifully articulated version of the Baker's Wife's "Moments in the Woods" from Into the Woods. It's easy to see why Sondheim is a favourite - and vice versa - given the detail in her characterisation, and ability to access both quick wit and complex emotion.
More recent work includes Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World, which reignited her passion for musical theatre - and gave the concert perhaps its highlight, a spine-tingling performance of "Stars and the Moon" containing a moment of awed, achingly vulnerable revelation.
Fans of Grey Gardens will be pleased to hear that the team is keen to reprise the production (director Thom Southerland was in attendance), and getting another glimpse of Russell's hilarious but empathetic portrayal of eccentric Edie Beale is as good an argument as you can make for its renaissance.
The solo concert, at its best, combines an informative sweep of the artist's career with spontaneous, candid moments. Russell certainly met that brief, her down-to-earth chat including check-ins with her mum in the audience, as well as fascinating tidbits, such as how she came to perform the Red Dwarf theme song, or how she accidentally discovered her chest voice.
The latter was the only drawback to the retrospective approach, since Russell - though still possessing an impressive range - has evidently transitioned from that early high soprano, leading to a few moments of vocal strain in re-creating early numbers. But for musical theatre fans, this was still a huge pleasure - ideal Sunday afternoon (in the park...) viewing.
Jenna Russell with Seth Rudetsky was at Leicester Square Theatre on 3 February