By BRUCE DENNILL
What You Don’t Know About Women: The Music Of Cy Coleman / Starring Carly Graeme / Redhill School 8
Carly Graeme is a fixture on the South African musical theatre scene, often starring as a lead or featured role in productions just left of the mainstream, including Boys In The Photograph and Starlight Express. Some of her major influences share that curious mix of influential and yet atypical, with composer, songwriter and pianist Cy Coleman – the focus of Graeme’s new one-woman show – being almost a definitive figure for that description.
Coleman worked with some of the most significant lyricists working in jazz, pop and musical theatre in the 1950s, many of them women (notably Carolyn Leigh, Dorothy Fields and Betty Comden), who were almost never given the dues they deserved in that generally chauvinistic era and industry.
Graeme’s the sort of no-nonsense broad (indeed, she might slap me for saying that) who would’ve found a way to navigate through the pitfalls of the time had she been around then, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that, as a musicals-literate singer, she would have a particular appreciation for the work of a man who not only appreciated the skills of women, but was also, with his male songwriting partners, capable of sensitively and accurately putting forward the emotional perspectives of female characters.
Following a script that’s by turns informative, deferential and sprinkled with dry wit, Graeme interacts confidently with her audience between the songs, which she wholly inhabits. She is accompanied by a talented band comprising musical director Rowan Bakker on the piano, bassist Roger Hobbs and drummer Etienne Oosthuysen.
Any listener with musical knowledge will spot early on that Coleman’s songs are not at all easy to play or to sing, with his music written to mimic the ebbs and cadences of a spoken conversation rather than to have words fitted to it. Bakker takes the lead in terms of the arrangements, with Hobbs and Oosthuysen smoothly adjusting to his emphases, all of which collectively support Graeme’s meticulous phrasing.
Given that Graeme chose the songs and their subject matter to suit the specific narrative she was after for the production, it’s not surprising that she sings each song with focused fervour. What improves matters still further, though, is that the tone of the songs – the keys they’re in, but also the way the compositions are constructed – suit her range and singing style well. So there are perceptive takes on everything from Witchcraft (a hit for Frank Sinatra) to Nobody Does It Like Me (which Shirley Bassey made her own and to which Graeme gives a big, brassy sheen) via quiet, thoughtful reflections and to The Oldest Profession, a song about being exhausted by life as a hooker – at all of 26 years old.
What You Don’t Know About Women is a shrewd, authentic piece with its heart dedicated to its subject rather than to cutting corners that might make it more superficially marketable to a mainstream audience. And Graeme’s performance is virtuosic: parts of the show offer arguably her best singing ever, with the occasional thinner note generally in that a part of a song which a singer might be able to focus on exclusively when the tune is in its context in a musical, but which is part of a sustained, demanding sing for Graeme in her solo role here.
A wonderful bit of repertoire that will hopefully resurface soon – and regularly.