By Karen Isaacs
Wow! Before you read any further, immediately make plans to see He Wrote Good Songs now at Seven Angels Theater through Nov. 27.
I was absolutely mesmerized by the performance of Jon Peterson who conceived and wrote this show about the life of Anthony Newley. It is a bravura performance. He captures Newley’s vibrato and reedy voice almost perfectly as well as giving us a fully developed character. He is good you wonder why he isn’t better known outside of the business.
The show recounts Newley’s life from childhood in London’s East End until his death in 1999. Peterson tells us about his early beginnings as a teenager including playing the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s acclaimed film of Oliver Twist, which led to early stardom, his first appearance on the West End (and later Broadway) stage in a musical by John Cranko (a well-known Royal Ballet choreographer) and his then burgeoning career as a pop singer and later the composer/lyricist and star of several musicals.
He Wrote Good Songs is not only a juke box musical but a one man show, yet it never seems like that. The songs which are mostly by Newley or Bricusse or both, fit nicely into the story. Jon Peterson’s talent makes it seem as more characters are on the stage.
As performed by Peterson, Newley has many less than desirable qualities – he was a womanizer, easily hurt people and parenting was not always his strong point. YET….and this is a big yet, he is totally charming. He is aware of his flaws even if he won’t or can’t stop from doing them. As he tells them to us, he gives us a wink and smile as if to say – “I know I shouldn’t but I can’t help myself.”
As we follow the ups and downs of his life – which includes several marriages, a number of children (he always seemed surprised by the pregnancies) and a stay in Hollywood, we hear many of his most famous songs.
Before he was 30, he and Bricusse had written to successful West End and Broadway shows and Newley had starred in both, at least on Broadway. I remember seeing them both. The shows were Stop the World, I Want to Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd. He did like long titles. Each of these shows dealt in some ways with the British class system and the difficulty of those born into the working classes of succeeding or gaining acceptance.
Each show produced songs recorded by many top performers as well as some lesser known numbers that are equally delightful. So we get to here “On a Wonderful Day like Today,” “What Kind of Fool Am I?” “Gonna Build a Mountain,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and others.
Plus we get songs from the film Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory which he wrote with Bricusse.
This show isn’t just about the hits – Peterson introduces us to some forgotten songs. “I’ll Begin Again” from Newley’s musical Scrooge, “Oh, What a Son of a Bitch I Am,” from his independent film in 1969 that finished him Hollywood. The film had another long title (Can Heironymus Merkon Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness) and he starred, directed and wrote it.
We also hear about his awful 9 month experience filming Dr. Doolittle with Rex Harrison, who apparently didn’t like the animals, the cast or Newley and was always trying to get everyone fired. He also hated the music that Newley wrote with Bricusse and Alexander Courage.
Semina de Laurentis has done an excellent job directing this piece aided, no doubt, by Peterson’s years of experience and talent. It is never static, the moments flow from one to another and the pathos at the end – Newley’s death from cancer and his reconciliation with his father – is not overplayed.
Daniel Husvar has created a terrific set that shows a small den as well as other houses that serve as Newley’s neighborhood and other locations. The sound by Matt Martin was excellent as were the lighting affects by Scott Calley. Bruce Barnes provided the musical direction as well as the vocal arrangements and orchestrations with Peterson. One song “In London” was written by Peterson to introduce us to Newley’s early life. It is very good.
This show is dependent on the talent of Peterson and he has a huge amount of it. He grew up in England, trained at the Royal Ballet and has performed major roles on both sides of the Atlantic A Chorus Line and as the Emcee in the 1995 production of Cabaret on tour.
He brought his other two one man shows – Cohen, Tonight! and Song Man, Dance Man – to Seven Angels in the past. Both were terrific.
So make a beeline to Waterbury to see He Wrote Good Songs before Nov. 27. For tickets visit Seven Angels or call 203-757-4676.