Soprano Wendy Ferguson and pianist Ruth McGinley breathe fresh life into some iconic songs in Belfast

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gershwin, Porter and Sondheim, ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’: Wendy Ferguson (soprano), Ruth McGinley (piano), Connor Quinn (baritone), John Gillen (drumkit), Peter Doherty (bass), Cameron Menzies (director), Nuala Campbell (hair and make up designer). MAC Theatre, Belfast, 13.4.2024. (RB)

Soprano Wendy Ferguson and pianist Ruth McGinley

Gershwin – ‘The Man I Love’ (Lady, Be Good); But Not for Me (Girl Crazy)
Rodgers and Hammerstein – ‘If I Love You’ (Carousel); ‘Hello Young Lovers’ (The King and I)
Jerome Kern – ‘All the Things You Are’ (Very Warm for May)
Manning Sherwin – ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’
Rodgers and Hart – ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ (Pal Joey)
Cole Porter – ‘So in Love’ (Kiss me, Kate)
Edith Piaf – ‘Hymn to Love’
Sondheim – ‘Not a Day Goes By’ (Merrily we Roll Along); ‘Not While I’m Around’ (Sweeney Todd); ‘Losing my Mind’ (Follies)
Kander and Ebb – ‘Maybe This Time’ (Cabaret)
Richard Rodgers – ‘To Keep my Love Alive’ (A Connecticut Yankee)
Jimmy Roberts – ‘Always the Bridesmaid’ (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change)

This concert formed part of Northern Ireland Opera’s Salon Series which involves members of the company touring the province with a selection of staged works and performing them in celebrated settings and buildings. It is designed to showcase some of the most evocative and moving musical genres from music theatre, art song, chanson, lieder and classics form the Great American Song book.

This concert featured some of the songs from the so-called golden age of Hollywood musicals as well as some earlier works by Gershwin and later works by Stephen Sondheim. Cameron Menzies and his team provided a suitably stylish and intimate setting for the performance.

Soprano Wendy Ferguson and pianist Ruth McGinley did an excellent job breathing fresh life into these iconic songs and reinventing them for a modern audience. Ferguson brought a wonderful musicality and lyricism to the songs while McGinley’s accompaniment was polished tasteful and idiomatic throughout. John Gillen on drumkit and Peter Doherty on bass provided exemplary support.

Ferguson and McGinley opened with a selection of songs by Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern which have been immortalised by Ella Fitzgerald and others. Ferguson captured the sensuous Romantic longing in Gershwin’s ‘The Man I love’. She and McGinley seemed to find just the right balance between the upbeat melody and accompaniment and melancholy lyrics in ‘But Not for Me’. Ferguson brought a rich opulent tone to Richard Rodgers’s ‘If I Loved You’ although she seemed less comfortable at the top of the vocal register. Ferguson captured the sense of ecstatic longing in Jerome Kern’s ‘All the Things You Are’ while she and Ruth McGinley deftly navigated their way through the song’s striking modulations.

Ferguson and McGinley opened the next set of songs with a charming performance of ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’. They followed this up with ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’. This now iconic song premiered in the musical Pal Joey on Christmas Day 1940. It was initially performed by Vivienne Segal, but it will forever be associated with Ella Fitzgerald. Ferguson portrayed perfectly the sassy and racy character of the singer while conveying the sense of entrancement in the song. ‘So in Love’ is one of Cole Porter’s most ravishing songs and it received a ravishing performance here. Ferguson invested great beauty of tone into Piaf’s ‘Hymn to Love’ although the song did not quite have the charged emotional impact it needs, and which one hears in Piaf’s own extraordinary performance.

Baritone Conor Quinn joined Ferguson and McGinley for the Sondheim songs which followed. Quinn and Ferguson gave a polished performance of ‘Not While I’m Around’ from Sweeney Todd although I would have liked to hear more of the disturbing undercurrents in this duet. Quinn followed this up with a strong and heartfelt performance of ‘Losing my Mind’ from Follies. Liza Minnelli performed this song and Quinn’s performance reminded me a little of her with its depiction of highly charged obsessive desire. Minnelli also gave the definitive performance of Kander and Ebb’s ‘Maybe This Time’ from Cabaret. McGinley, Gillen and Doherty joined forces to conjure up the decadent ambience of the Kit-Kat club in the opening section while Ferguson’s committed performance conveyed the sense of desperate hope in the song.

There was a change of tone with the penultimate song, ‘Always the Bridesmaid’. Ferguson clearly relished the black humour and proved an accomplished narrator in her description of seeing off multiple husbands. The final song on the programme was ‘Hello Young Lovers’ from The King and I. Ferguson sang with supreme lyricism and excellent diction bringing this first-rate concert to a conclusion.

Robert Beattie

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