“Winds From the East… Mist Coming In…” The opening words and chords of this practically perfect evening were already enough to send shivers down my spine. The Sherman Brothers may have won numerous awards (including Tonys, Grammys and Oscars), but with having had so much success on film, they can often be overlooked and underrated as songwriters in their own right.
Thankfully, “A Spoonful Of Sherman”, a classy celebration of their genius at the St James Theatre, sung by four wonderful voices under the musical direction of Colin Billing, rights this wrong! The evening is made all the more intimate and touching being narrated by Robert Sherman’s son, Robert J Sherman. He takes us on a journey through his father and uncle’s successes, and talks with candour about the good times, and the not so good times. From Mary Poppins, through to the Jungle Book, The Aristocats and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, we are treated to some of the greatest known songs of childhood, as well as some lesser known numbers. The thing about the Shermans’ is, even their lesser known works are significantly more toe tapping and hummable than many more “current” composers’ material! These guys knew how to write a tune, a talent they no doubt inherited from their father Al Sherman, a respected and notable songwriter in his own right (“Save Your Sorrow For Tomorrow” was one of many hits, recorded by various artists including Peggy Lee). They have also passed their musical prowess on to Mr Sherman Jr, who has a chance to showcase some of his own work (“Jiggery Pokery” and “Music Of the Spheres” – definitely worth listening out for in the future).
Emma Williams (one of the finest actresses/voices in theatre today, soon to be seen in Annie Get Your Gun UK tour) shines throughout, none more so than when singing a personal favourite “Age Of Not Believing” from Bedknobs and Broomsticks (we could have done with more from this show in my opinion), and a lesser known song “Mother Earth and Father Time”. (Coincidently Emma Williams was the original Truly Scrumptious in the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium – as the Shermas wrote – t IS a small world after all!). Stuart Matthew Price has a voice that could melt butter, so hearing him sing “Hushabye Mountain” from Chitty was a real treat, as was his comedic slip up in “You’re Sixteen” – he managed to knock a year off his paramour’s age, much to the audience’s amusement! Charlotte Wakefield (recently robbed of an Olivier) gave a stunning rendition of “My Own Home” from The Jungle Book and “Tell Him Anything” from The Slipper And The Rose. Greg Castiglioni completed the line up adding comedy and charm to his numbers, including “Ugly Bug Ball” and “A Veritable Smorgasbord” from Charlotte’s Web. (A VERY minor quibble would be that it seemed a tad odd in act 1 for Mr Castiglioni to be wearing a cream tux with pink bow tie whilst everyone else was in black – a splash of colour wouldn’t have gone amiss – this was remedied in act 2!)
Robert J Sherman’s charming narration was honest, and poignantly accentuated throughout by a series of private photographic stills, including photographs with Angela Lansbury on the set of Bedknobs & Broomsticks, on set shots from Mary Poppins, at the Academy Awards, and with Walt Disney himself! To be told their story by someone who was actually there, made it all the more special. Musical arranger and director Colin Billing clearly has a passion for this music which communicated directly to the audience – the cast and material were in very trustworthy hands.
With such a wealth of great material to choose from, it was refreshing that the easy, obvious route wasn’t taken and we were treated to a varied, amusing, touching tribute to two iconic songwriters (personally I could listen to Poppins all day!). The writers’ names might not be instantly recognisable to the younger generation, but the music most certainly is. A cast recording (and songbook) would be most welcomed, and hopefully a longer run!
Reviewed by Kieran Brown