Irrepressibly delightful Ali Harper – every which way at Circa Theatre’s “The Supper Club”

Circa Theatre presents:
“The Supper Club”
Ali Harper (hostess, performer, singer)
with The Jazz Hot Supper Club Band –
Tom McLeod (piano), Blair Latham (saxophone, clarinet, guitar, flute),
Olivia Campion (percussion), Scott Maynard (double-bass)

Writer – Ali Harper
Director – Ian Harman
Music Director – Tom McLeod
Choreography – Ian Harman & Sandy Gray
Set and Costume Design – Ian Harman
Lighting – Rich Tucker

Circa Theatre 1, Taranaki St., Wellington
Tuesday, 23rd January, 2024

(until 17th February, 2024)

You have to hand it to Ali Harper, right from her first “boots and all” appearance on the floor of Circa 1 as a delightfully enthusiastic and even somewhat engagingly dishevelled “hostess-cum-organiser-cum-stage manager” firing on all cylinders to make her audience feel welcomed and at home to her “Supper Club” for a “sumptuous smorgasbord of song”. Utterly in character was her peremptory (and near-perilous!) exiting to check up on some vital last-second detail regarding the show’s introduction! – but most importantly she had us all primed to a tee for what was to follow – a “coming-to-life” of what seemed like a typically subterranean nightclub scenario, with light, movement and sound! In fact the opening saxophone notes of “Basin Street Blues” – would have instantly evoked for my generation those first, far-off New Zealand black-and-white television images of the renowned Leonard Feather’s programmes featuring some of the great musicians of jazz, which began, as I remember, every week with those same haunting upward phrases!……

So, even before Ali Harper herself returned to the stage I was hooked, floating on a nostalgic carpet of sounds begun by Blair Latham’s insinuating saxophone sounds, all of which continued with the support of Tom McLeod’s piano, Scott Maynard’s double bass and Olivia Campion’s drums. Harper’s reappearance as “Nellie”, a 1920s English Rose, instantly captivated, her persona complete with idiomatic-sounding Cockney (?) accent, and a bevy of songs, which sounded totally “period” in character, despite (according to my researches when writing this review) the earliest of them “The Physician” first appearing in a 1933 Cole Porter musical “Nymph Errant”, and the latest “C’est si bon” a 1947 song by Henri Betti (a pedantic observation on my part, under the circumstances!). I was particularly captivated by, firstly, “The Physician”, having never heard it or known if it before, and then the George Gershwin song “Slap that Bass” (from the 1937 film “Shall We Dance”). Harper’s performances of each one as “Nellie” I thought particularly delightful.

Either an authentic recording of 1939 British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s grimly-voiced ultimatum to the German Government regarding the latter’s invasion of Poland, or a creditable imitation of that same voice was heard amid the stage’s darkly-growing ambience leading to a new singer’s appearance, one with the name Golde, whose appearance and manner made the greatest possible contrast with the delightful “Nellie”.  Harper’s wonderfully deadpan “I’m the Laziest Girl in town” (another Cole Porter song that was new to me – what a musical goldmine of an evening it had become already!)  belied her character’s raunchily-delivered succeeding number “Let’s Misbehave!” (another Porter song), and included a couple of Harper’s amusing “sitting duck” audience interactions giving pleasure of a different kind (depending on whether one was a recipient or an observer!). But I thought the disturbingly militaristic treatment accorded the accompaniment to the well-known “Lili Marlene” chillingly effective amid surreal blood-orange lighting, culminating in suitably atonally-accelerated oblivion, and the maniacal ravings of (presumably) Adolf Hitler as the singer left the stage!

Our antidote to all of this was provided by Harper’s next singer, Claudette, a vivacious and no-nonsense figure entering centrestage and continuing right into the audience, giving out cards which displayed the legend “Vive la France”, before launching into an engaging, quick-waltz number which I didn’t know, but which crackled with energy – “Ҫa sent si bon la France” (France smells so good)! After such unbridled energy we appreciated a “breather” in the form of “Les Feuilles Mortes” (Dead Leaves), a melody I didn’t know I knew at first, but was held spellbound by the singer’s beautiful, becalmed concentration and breathtakingly spare accompaniment. As for the concluding number in this bracket, Harper paid unashamed homage to the great Edith Piaf, here, with “Non, je ne regrette vien”, the song’s spoken introduction flowering into stirring, strongly-framed utterance and bringing an overwhelming ovation with which to end the first half – whew!

A comfortably-paced interval gave us time and space to process what we’d heard and to refresh for what was still to come, with Tom McLeod and the Jazz Hot Supper Club band in the driving seat for the first couple of numbers of the second half’s opening bracket, “Freddie”, obviously an American singer/performer. A snappy instrumental opening to Irving Berlin’s 1927 song  “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was complemented by the entertainingly nimble singing of pianist Tom McLeod, who then delivered a similarly lithe rendition of  Ben Wiseman’s 1957 song (written for Elvis Presley)  “A lot of Livin’ to do”, accompanied by a great sax solo in the latter by Blair Latham.

Ali Harper’s entry as (presumably) Fred Astaire, complete with top hat, got a great reception, as did her rendition of the eponymous title song, though as a contrast to the razz-matazz opening, I would have liked some contrasting circumspection in both the vocal line and accompaniment in both  Jerome Kern’s 1940 song  “The Last time I saw Paris” and Cole Porter’s earlier (1932) song “Night and Day” – a more wistful, measured delivery of either song could have varied the mix to its and our advantage. Still, variety came with the next two numbers featured as vocal duets from singer and pianist, Tom McLeod joining Ali Harper in Richard Whiting’s 1937 hit “Too Marvelous for Words”, and then the throwback 1927 Dave Dreyer song “Me and My Shadow”, whose introductory music I didn’t at all know, until the lyrics reached those famous eponymous lines, by which time Harper and McLeod had wowed us with their snappy dance routine to boot!

Two more recent numbers concluded the “American “ sequence  – coincidentally I had not long ago been watching the old 1950s “Kiss Me, Kate” film and enjoying the superb Ann Miller’s song-and-dance routine for Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot”, one which Harper most effectively  turned into a sultry “femme fatale” number, then next “vamping” the Nancy Sinatra “These Boots were made for walkin’” hit, and excitingly upwardly-modulating the keys for each of the refrains, her sexy Peggy Lee-like-insouciance actually heightening the song’s tensions! Wow!

The show’s finale was a “Supper Club Comin’ Out Night” with Harper as the “Ultimate Diva” and giving her own era’s songs the full treatment – I thought it all worked in an “I gave it all I had” way, warm and open-hearted, wide-ranging and full-blooded I was left with renewed appreciation of Harper’s ability to convey memorable and  contrasting characterisations of the kind I’d previously seen and so enjoyed. Every “episode” had its particular gem, giving me plenty to take away from the evening and ponder amid plentiful memories and nostalgic associations. Together with her ever-responsive musicians, allied  with director Ian Harman’s stage and costumes expertise, Sandy Gray’s choreography and Rich Tucker’s “on the button” lighting, Harper made our evening glow with warmth and scintillate with pleasure.