Mindrocket Ltd and London's Little Opera House present
with ALISON LUZ
Directed by ANTHONY SHRUBSALL
King's Head Theatre
11 December - 22 January 2010
A review by Bernie Whelan for EXTRA! EXTRA!
This is not a Stars in Your Eyes affair, but an excellently executed tribute to one of music's greatest stars – Mario Lanza, a tenor who changed the meaning of that word by making arias more accessible to the masses and wisely proving that operatic singers can be just as expressively emotive through the medium of popular song as through their allegedly, higher art.
Mario Lanza – many know the name, but how many know about the real man behind the 1950's Hollywood legend? Lanza from Philadelphia, PA, U.S.A. shot to international fame following his portrayal of his idol, Enrico Caruso in the popular film, The Great Caruso in 1951, though he'd already scored a huge hit with his first million selling single, 'Be My Love,' from The Toast of New Orleans (1950) which he'd starred in with Kathyrn Grayson, David Niven and then teenaged Rita Moreno. By rights, given Lanza's exceptional tenor voice, 'dripping with emotion' as one review stated, seemed destined to become a major operatic star. But Hollywood beckoned and he heeded the call, quickly becoming a big screen idol, alternatly inspiring many critics who'd formerly been supportive of him to turn caustic and hoards of fans to flock around him whereever he went. But Lanza, a natural singer, with little interest in the technicalities of his art, despite the fact that he'd begun serious study and professional performing at 15, excelled in conveying the emotion and meaning of a song, so much so that stars such as the late, great Luciano Pavorotti and Placido Domingo both credited Lanza with inspiring their choice of career and singing styles, with the third of 'The Three Tenors, Jose Carraras, recording a best selling album of Lanza favourites. Sadly, largely due to the uncertain nature of mercurial Hollywood fame, Lanza died in 1959, at the age of 38, following years of ups and downs spurning excesses born of depression, leaving his loving wife (who died six months later) and four children behind.
The story opens where Lanza's too brief life ended, in a hospital room in Rome, where he looks back over his career with a mixture of philosophical candour and remorse at the bittersweetness of it all. The setting is sparse but effective as it allows Lanza the man and great artist to emerge.
As is inevitable with biographical performances, comparisons must be made and in that regard, Andrew Bain compares very favorably with the object of his tribute, paying high regard to the subject of his admiration, without ever actually imitating Lanza. Bain does not really resemble Lanza physically, but he seems to capture something of the cheery and confident attitude of the singer in his prime and his fine tenor voice oozes with emotion; his acting, like Lanza's was, is also fittingly personable. But additionally, and most importantly of all there are some moments in which Bain actually manages to skirt Lanza's joyously exuberant tone – the tone of a singer who not only realises he is good, but that he is reaching and connecting with his public. How could I possibly access whether Mr. Bain's performance captures Lanza's essence, I hear you ask.
When I was growing up in Philadelphia, Lanza, who'd become the stuff of Philly legend, was something of a patron saint, his photo inevitably having pride of place on the mantel of many a living room style Italian restaurant in South Philly, where it doubtless, resides to this day, as Lanza's face was one of a trilogy which included the Sacred Heart/ the Pope and always, Sinatra from nearby Hoboken, New Jersey. Lanza was, and probably always will be, a local boy made good. The sound of his tenor voice was my first exposure to operatic singing via films on TV and Lanza's recordings which graced the jukeboxes of many a diner I stopped in throughout my early to leaving home days. In short, Lanza's voice is part of my personal soundtrack. That is how I know Mr. Bain has made a good job of his Lanza, and I feel very confident in making that claim.
Bain as Lanza is superbly accompanied throughout his performance by Alison Luz on piano who seems to have the 1950's by the keys, crashing her way through one melodramatically tinged Lanza hit after another, like the beautifully sung (brought a lump to my throat) 'Because You're Mine,' and the Oscar nominated, 'The Lovliest Night of the Year,' always coming up smiling. Luz also very effectively, though wordlessly acts as this female or that in the singer's life from his mother, Maria Lanza, from whom he took his professional name, right through to his beloved, love at first sight wife, in a way which is alternately touching and comic. Luz has great presence and lends considerable charm and impressive musical talent to this lovingly staged production.
Throughout this self-produced production, Andrew Bain proves that he is a very gifted actor/singer - his experience performing in many operatic productions on the fringe, West End choruses, and touring companies of musicals like Les Miserables and Whistle Down the Wind has stood him in good stead. Last year, Bain also co-wrote and produced a two part documentary about Mario Lanza for BBC Radio 2, so he knows and understands his material, approaching it from the inside out as it were.
With Lanza, the audience benefits from Bain's knowledge, skill and canny ability to express the true feeling of a song through his singing, as though he is singing to each and every one of them personally, in turn inspiring those watching to renew their interest in Mario Lanza's life and thrilling performances, which is fitting. After all, Lanza himself was all about the music.
London's Little Opera House
King's Head Theatre
115 Upper Street
WEDNESDAY - SATURDAY
(no performances Dec 24, 25, 26, 31)
the performance last 80 mins
Box office: 0844 477 1000
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