Above: Anna Dowsley delivered the consummate performance, displaying excellent art song recital, cabaret and character acting skills in this expansion of William Bolcom’s complete Cabaret Songs set. Her character even joined the audince seating at one point. Images: Charlie Hardy.

If you have been ‘Waitin’ for another complete set of a composer’s expressive works to be cleverly expanded with ‘Surprise!’ ‘Over The Piano’ then the wait is no more. In the vein of previously successful presentation formats such as achieved with Schubert’s Winterreise in a projection box (2022) and last year’s acting infused Chopin Preludes Op.28, which morphed chamber music performance from its intimate, formal guise into super effective dramatic displays, the current tour brought us classic twentieth century vocal music.

Introducing or reminding audiences of the compact musical genius and social commentary of the clever William Bolcom and lyricist Arnold Weinstein, Long Lost Loves, the brainchild of Musica Viva’s Paul Kildea plus collaborators, was a dramatic feast and a slick songfest indeed. The twenty ‘Cabaret Songs’ from Bolcom and Weinstein’s extension of the cabaret idiom were written between 1978 and 1985.

This expansion for the recent Musica Viva tour presented the inimitable sound of Bolcom’s intricate, challenging accompaniment, his demands of chameleon tone and varied storytelling on any vocal giant attempting them now as well-paced soundtrack for a wake with a difference in an inner city apartment.

Above: Pianist Michael Curtain and Anna Dowsley. Image credit: Charlie Hardy.

We meet George – a larger than life character from Bolcom’s bold cabaret song of the same name. Dandy, drunk, would-be actor, warm neighbour, possible polyamorous opera loving aesthete with a wicked sense of living and humour. Constantine Costi’s well-written and neatly directed tale of a diminutive neighbour arranging a tribute to George post grisly demise of a possible knifing in the stairwell was a tight and colourful scena. Working with dramaturg Hilary Bell, movement director Shannon Bell plus nice choices from lighting designer Matthew Marshall this story bursts with a variety of rection as acquaintances of the free-spirited George emerge to deliver songs from ‘Amor’ to feeling ‘Blue’.

The flow of the story and frustrations of the neighbour running the memorial gathering amidst the fierce humour and towering personalities of the farcical eulogists works well as the Cabaret Songs set songlist is shuffled and emerged tagged to the spirit of the murdered George, to the grudges or bitterness of his jilted lovers or to express the exhaustion of the more innocent, well-meaning organiser of the memorial-turned-attention-hungry tirade of those lamenting George and delving into self-promotion a la fois.

Any set of musical works performed in entirety, and any new script or concept with a cast of many performed by few need a talented set of performers to carry it off. Exceptional response from opera-trained Anna Dowsley to Pulitzer Prize winning Bolcom’s complex miniatures, fine direction and choreography sees the huge array of sit-com, sit-melodrama and personalities dazzle us in a superbly timed, soulful romp and winner of a concept by Ian Dickson and Paul Kildea.

Above: Anna Dowsley. Image credit: Charlie Hardy.

Dowsley devours the demanding range of pitch, timbres and diction inherent in this set’s lyrical, swagger and racy, at times cinematic swoop of songs which always entertained despite the sarcasm or sardonic level involved. Comic tales with an edge such as ‘Toothbrush Time’, ‘Over the Piano’  ‘He Tipped The Waiter, ‘Poet Pal of Mine’ and ‘Fur’ rolled on the tongue of Dowsley and in the character accent of whomsoever had the floor at the time. Her self-accompanied moment was beautiful. They also in this packaging became ideal tribute or vignette moments for the same memorial, which is a commendable re-imagining of Bolcom’s work.

Gems in the set such as ‘Waitin’, ‘Song of Black Max’, ‘Oh Close The Curtain’  and ‘Blue’ were stunning atmospheres paying musical tribute to the musical and social comment genius of Bolcom. These miniatures are favourites of many vocalists, with superstars such as Dawn Upshaw loving to perform and record them. They and this incarnation of the set inspire re-listening as their charm and wit- a Brel with a bite, Sondheim on steroids as miniatures and Dowland with a modern-day acerbic edge.

Bolcom the pianist wrote fiendishly celabratory music inspired by ragtime and other genres. His through-composed accompaniment for Cabaret Songs alternates between the sparse, early twentieth century modernist gesture and full vaudeville to music theatre tapestries. Anna Dowsley was in this concept show excellently supported by pianist Michael Curtain. Curtain’s rendering of Bolcom’s keyboard layering was exemplary. The articulation and colourisation he achieved at the piano was as much to be admired as Dowsley’s characterisations knife edge changes of character plus vocal effect. He shared her incredible stamina in delivery.

This event at City Recital Hall was well received, with much chuckling, gasping and recognition of circumstance intoned in counterpoint from the audience. Well done to the progressive, enduring Musica Viva, cast plus creatives and the two talents impressing us consistently with fine musical ‘Places To Live’ bringing much ‘Satisfaction’. A filmed or streamed production of this new tale with perhaps even more than minimal sets would be exciting. A recording release of this set of ‘Miracle Song’ items so precisely performed is essential.