Cry Me A River: The Julie London Story
Avid theatregoers are familiar with the biographical musical theatre genre. Large-scale productions such as The Boy from Oz, Dusty and Shout! encapsulate the rise, career and often tragedy of renowned music celebrities. Julie London may not have been one of such eminent or notorious singer/actresses of the 20th century, however her contribution to the great American songbook and the Hollywood cinema scene should certainly not go uncelebrated.
It is with this great esteem and respect for the recently passed star, that spurred our very own song-and-dance legend Rhonda Burchmore’s most recent theatrical engagement Cry Me A River; a one-woman cabaret, paying tribute to the story and repertoire of Julie London.
Burchmore’s 5-show season at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne follows its inaugural run at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and a short stint at the Brisbane Powerhouse.
Julie London was a popular actress and jazz crooner of the 1950’s and 60’s, making more than thirty albums and twenty films, whilst also becoming a notorious pin-up calendar girl (the next most popular after Marilyn Monroe). London was never a tragic heroine or sensationalist performer much like other female artists of her time, however her story and sound lends itself to an entertaining and atmospheric biographical concert performance.
In an evening reminiscent of the 1950’s Jazz scene, two stars really shone; both bringing absolute justice to London’s tale and tunes.
The cabaret repertoire consisted of 37 jazz and blues classics, each performed in lyrical and in sentiment to the more cathartic moments of London’s life. From the playful and coy “Give Me the Simple Life” to the sincerity of “Hushabye Mountain”, Burchmore not only delivered the bold and brassy tracks with richness but the more tender of the song list with restraint, softness, and subtlety. London’s lower smokey tone sat perfectly in Burchmore’s lower vocal register.
The first star of the evening was Musical Director Ray Alldridge and his outstanding ten-piece band, the L.A Combo. Alldridge’s original arrangements gave new personality to already great work, allowing his players’ opportunity to boaster their individual instrumental sound and to really create that 1950’s atmosphere and essence of live performance.
Gary Young’s script for the cabaret was perfunctory. Trailing chronologically through London’s career the format of became rote; possibly unavoidable in a cabaret of this genre. There were moments where Burchmore fumbled through the scripted narrative sections of the piece, calling on her natural charm to smoothen the bumps. Burchmore’s charisma and innuendo took control of the evening; her star personality swamped the show. From her bedazzling and luxuriously accessorized ‘60s inspired gowns, to her primly soft waved hair, the fiery red head (inadvertently or not) resembled London’s sound and striking aesthetic too. Albeit a number of years her senior, Burchmore really did inject London’s sass and soul into her physical performance. But with her signature ‘legs 11’ and extra 9 inches of height – Rhonda Burchmore cannot be disguised.
The stage design transported us back to the West Coast Cool jazz scene, creating an atmosphere symbolic of the jazz-cabaret age. An oversized gilded frame suspended at the rear of the stage space provided the perfect backdrop for an abundance of projections highlighting iconic images from London’s cinematic and music work. The onstage brass band, chaise longue, golden velvet drape in act one followed by the star cloth during the second act boosted the elegance and old Hollywood sentiment. I did, however, find Alex Saad’s lighting design to be, at times, distracting in its overuse of color and movement and didn’t mirror the class and simplicity of the overall design and performance.
There have been a number of recent occasions where Burchmore’s theatrical appearances have been severe cases of star product placement, however this tribute really did provide the stalwart with suited material to deliver to her loyal audience and is testament to how Rhonda Burchmore has made her mark in Australian entertainment. The story of Julie London was presented in a tasteful length and offered a balance of biographical dialogue with a classic jazz repertoire, spiced with Burchmore’s effervescent performance style.