Robyn Archer: The Other Great American Songbook – Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2011

Presented by the Adelaide Festival Centre and the Adelaide Cabaret Festival
Reviewed Sunday 12th June 2011

Venue: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Road, Adelaide
Season: ended
Duration: 90 mins

Robyn Archer came out onto the stage alone, carrying her 12 string guitar, to open with an a capella rendition of Stephen Foster’s 1854 song, Hard Times, Come Again No More. Crossing the Atlantic, it became popular in Britain and, especially, Ireland, where it still forms a regular part of many Irish singers’ and bands’ repertoires. This was followed by The Housewife’s Lament, self accompanied on guitar, the band then entering for some country and western numbers, including yodelling, and a jug band song (recorded by the Memphis Jug Band back in 1928) with some with risqué lyrics, Take Your Fingers Off It, for which she played ukulele. The sombre theme recurred with other songs of hardship and suffering during the evening, though, including So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You and the famous Brother, Can You Spare Dime, almost the anthem of the Great Depression.

During the course of the performance she looked at a range of topics including censorship, immigrant refugees from the war in Europe, what we would now call asylum seekers, and their vast addition to American culture, with people such as Eisler and Weill mentioned for their contributions in the world of musical theatre, taking it into a more dramatic direction. She also added some humorous songs to lighten the load occasionally, Money Makes the World Go Around lifted the mood, before moving onto the blues with Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.

Archer was solidly backed throughout by what she introduced as The Soggy Bottom Band: Adelaide Chapter, consisting of three great musicians in Michael Morley on piano and washboard, Matthew Carey on keyboard and kazoo and George Butrumlis on piano accordion, each of them contributing vocal assistance from time to time, not to mention touches of comedy.

The world of musical theatre got a look in, naturally with songs from The Pyjama Game, Seven and a Half Cents, and Guys and Dolls, Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat. There was also a comic song from W. C. Fields repertoire, and then Michael Morley ripped into Tom Lehrer’s highly irreverent, and very funny, The Vatican Rag.

The songs just kept coming with Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have, Lonely House from the musical Street Scene, by Kurt Weill and a very tricky tongue twister celebrating Hollywood. Protest and folk songs had to be there, too, of course, and Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi started this set going.

One number that brought more than a few laughs was her idea of finding songs for each of the cities, and a few other landmarks (such as the railways, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Duke Ellington’s A Train and The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe), on a journey across America from the west coast to the eastern seaboard. The trip took very little time as each of the many songs was represented by only one or two lines that included the place name. Sadly that ended the performance.

Massive applause, as always with her Adelaide appearances, closed the world première of this new production. This was another big hit for Robyn Archer and her cohorts, with a very satisfied audience milling around talking about it enthusiastically in the foyer after.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

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