By BRUCE DENNILL
All You Ask Of Me / Directed by Matthew Counihan / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
A two-hander – singer, narrator and sarcasm conduit Carly Graeme and accompanist Rowan Bakker – All You Ask Of Me has a creative, candid concept. It’s a revue that includes dozens of hits from beloved musicals, a treat for the average audience member. But it accompanies those classics with commentary that reveals the challenges involved for the performers who must smile and sashay with undimmed zeal through each rendition of songs that have become – for them – clichés and…just…work.
Graeme has a confidence backed up by extraordinary talent, versatility and experience, and the opportunity to speak her mind on some of the less glamorous and satisfying aspects of her chosen career (while still encapsulating all that makes musicals so attractive to audiences) is one she obviously relishes. It’s a brave angle to take, certainly, as potential producers could be looking on and musing over the wisdom of hiring someone who’s not afraid to push back against poor treatment, however valid those concerns. At the same time, there could hardly be a better calling card than a show Graeme helped conceptualise, write, put together and perform…
All You Ask Of Me is far more than merely a playlist of theatrical pop. Graeme and Bakker handle some complex (and often intentionally comedic) medleys, driving up the extent of the repertoire that needed to be prepared considerably, which both increases the likelihood of just about every audience member hearing a favourite and exposes that same audience to potential new discoveries. There are also pleasing, tricky gimmicks including having an assistant (Serena Steinhauer, who pops up now and then to wrangle props as needed) stepping into the crowd to get punters to choose, out of sparkly hats, first a song and then a character style in which Graeme would need to sing the song. In the performance under review, the style was “villain” and a delightfully hammed-up interpretation saw Graeme begin as something like Cruella De Vil and meander hilariously towards a grumpy Shirley Bassey.
If there is a criticism to make, it is that, though Graeme is intelligent, incisive and cynical, she is not nasty, and the edginess suggested by the show’s title (a play on the Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-hit, if you’ve not yet twigged) and world-weary concept is not explored or developed to the degree it might have been. As one example, the song that is arguably the show’s highlight is Send In The Clowns by Stephen Sondheim, introduced as a composer whose songs all musical theatre performers want to sing at some point, as opposed to something she’d have to grit her teeth through. Still, lamenting a lack of bitterness suggests a rather morose mindset, and Graeme’s passion for her craft shining through gives the piece a soft heart to go with its questioning brain. And Bakker is flawless on the piano, making a demanding score look like a walk in the park and providing a rock-solid platform for Graeme to charm, enthuse and dazzle her audience.