Ali Harper – Legendary Diva at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:

Ali Harper (soprano)
Michael Nicholas Williams (piano)

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016

I came away from singer Ali Harper’s and musical director Michael Nicholas Williams’ “Legendary Divas” opening night presentation at Circa Theatre feeling as though I had been seduced in the nicest and yet most whirlwind kind of way – Ali Harper’s all-encompassing stage personality, supported by her own and her pianist Michael Nicholas Williams’ consummate musicality throughout, simply took me over for the duration. To bend a clichéd but appropriate phrase, I could have gone on all night, both drinking in and delighting in as much as “the diva” and her director were prepared to give me. Staggering out afterwards into “the cold night air” was, more than usually on this occasion, a salutary return to a separate reality.

The range and scope of the territory covered by Harper’s and Williams’ performance was, I thought, astonishing – Harper stated in a programme note that her performance was one “honouring all those extraordinary women who have influenced me to do what I do today”. If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, she certainly fulfilled her goal, paying a deep and rich homage to an array of amazing singers throughout the course of the evening. In a sense it was all art which concealed art, with some occasionally mind-bending, but always spontaneous-sounding juxtapositions of singers and repertoire served up to us as organically as night follows day.

We got introductory gestures of welcome, including some instantly-engaging and physically exhilarating Motown-sound sequences, and some rhetorical teasings regarding the definition of the word “diva”, including a “bel canto-ish”, affectionately-hammed-up “O mio babbino caro” (until the advent of Luciano Pavarotti’s version of “Nessun dorma”, perhaps Puccini’s “greatest hit”!) and then a “can belt-o!” rendition of parts of an Ethel Merman standard! – whew! The subject of what a diva would wear came up, and, along with the question of suitable scenery, was consigned by Harper to the realms of relative unimportance next to “the glittering presence of (I quote) the gorgeous Michael Nicholas Williams” (rapturous applause).

I was delighted that Harper gave none other than Doris Day, an all-time favourite singer of mine, the honour of leading off the starry array, with a beautiful rendition of “It’s Magic”, a song from “Romance on the High Seas”, which was Day’s film debut in 1948. Harper’s winning vocal quality and powerful focusing of each word in a properly heartfelt context allowed the material to soar and transport us most satisfyingly in doing so. Barbara Streisand received similar laudatory treatment with Harper pulling out all her full-on stops in a raunchy performance of “Don’t rain on my Parade”, though, by contrast, another of my favourites, Julie Andrews, to my great regret became the butt of some ageist humour, albeit most skilfully brought off, with some hilarious, Hoffnung-like downwardly-spiralling vocal modulations……..oh, well, one can’t have ALL one’s heroines treated like goddesses, I suppose!

The subjective nature of things had me in raptures at Harper’s devastating rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”, which for me brought back something of the impact I remember made by the original singer Julie Covington’s tones and inflections. True, the singer may well have had either or both Elaine Paige and Madonna in mind – but such was the intensity of the interpretation, this became Harper’s moment more than anybody else’s. By contrast I found the normally affecting “Send in the Clowns” a trifle earthbound here, more world-weary and disillusioned than I wanted it to be, with a harder, less “floated” vocal line that I was expecting – it still worked, but in a tougher, rather more hard-bitten sense of the reality of things, with which I found it more difficult to “connect” – chacun en son gout, as they say………

Entertainments of more diverse kinds came and went, adding to the evening’s variety – Ali Harper’s “la belle dame sans merci” advancement on a hapless front-row male audience member, with a view to “dragging him up onto the performing stage”, worked beautifully, thanks to her persuasive charm as well as to the good-natured response of the gentleman involved, who seemed to gradually ‘‘get into the swing” of what was required to partner such a vibrant performer.

Another was Michael Nicholas Williams’ response to being told by Harper to “entertain the audience” while she went and changed her dress – as divas apparently do – an exercise which brought forth a couple of subsequent admonishments from the singer regarding the pianist’s initial choices of music, until Williams finally called her bluff by launching into THE Rachmaninov Prelude (C-sharp Minor, Op.3 No.2) and playing it with plenty of virtuosity, to boot! The music’s climax was interrupted by the singer’s re-entry in a classic, show-stopping way, wearing a gorgeous, close-fitting red dress and immediately launching into a bracket of songs associated with Shirley Bassey (mostly the title songs from the early James Bond movies, such as “Goldfinger”, all belted out in the best Bassey style!) – tremendous stuff!

Harper touched on the tragic aspects of some of her heroines – figures such as Judy Garland and Edith Piaf, both of whom died at a relatively early age – commenting that many seemed unlucky in love, and that a number also had what she called “image issues”, citing a quote from Janis Joplin (which I can’t remember, but was to do with her getting a rough ride from her schoolmates all throughout her college years, and never really escaping from the hurt). Though not directly referred to, there was conveyed a real sense of another, well-known Joplin quote which applied to a lot of performers and to what they did: – “Onstage I make love to 25,000 people – and then afterwards I go home alone…” Harper’s show didn’t dwell overmuch on the tragic stories, instead largely engaging the “divas” at the height of their singing and performance powers (well, perhaps with the exception of the unfortunate Julie Andrews) and conveying something of the essence of what those women did with their stellar talents.

In all, what Harper and Williams achieved was a veritable tour de force – of entertainment, involvement and enjoyment – a particularly stirring moment was the singer’s invitation for the audience to sing along with her in Carole King’s heartwarming “You’ve got a friend”, after which Harper’s chosen “friend” from the audience was recalled and promptly put in the hot seat once again, this time enjoined to help the rest of us identify the voices of eight well-known women singers – some of the “divas” whose talents and inspirational achievements lifted our own lives several notches upwards and gave voice to our innermost feelings and dreams. Ali Harper throughout the evening “owned” these women with total conviction, bringing to us the personalities through their songs – of the “eight divas” I picked the first two, Dusty Springfield and Peggy Lee, and as well I thought I caught snatches of Tina Turner and Olivia Newton-John – others with wider-ranging antennae would have “picked up” on the rest.

Thought-provoking, also, to have those images at the show’s end, some of whom I hadn’t heard of – Julie London, Etta James, Ruth Etting, and Eva Cassidy – receiving from Harper their deserved moment of glory, along with names which resonated for me, such as Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Nina Simone. But despite these evocations of greatness, nothing and nobody eclipsed the achievement of Ali Harper, her incredible communicative power, her infectious élan and her magnificent singing. With her illustrious music director, Michael Nicholas Williams at the pianistic helm, she was a force to be reckoned with – in all, I thought “Legendary Divas” a must-see!


See also the following link to Theatreview for other reviews:

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