The Songs That Got Away: The Music of Harold Arlen is a cabaret written and performed by Johanna Allen, showcasing the music and life of Harold Arlen. Although Harold Arlen is probably not a familiar name to most people, through the show it soon becomes apparent just how many of his tunes are actually well known. During his life, Arlen composed over 500 songs – made famous by performers such as Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.

The intimacy of The Salon at The Melbourne Recital Centre provided the ideal cabaret atmosphere: couples seated around small round tables with candles glowing, sipping wine and listening to the opening music by the three piece band. It wasn’t hard to imagine you were sitting in the Cotton Club in Manhattan.

From the moment she walked into the room, Johanna Allen had the audience mesmorised. Not a sound could be heard, not a glass was touched; the audience was entranced by her opening number ‘Anything I Hang My Hat Is Home’ and it continued. It wasn’t until Allen herself took a sip of water, fifteen minutes later, that anyone even thought to move and take a drink from their own glasses, such was the commanding impact of her performance. Heads were nodding and toes were tapping and there were smiles of approval throughout the audience.

The story opens in 1930s Manhattan and takes the audience into the life of young Jewish composer Harold Arlen, starting out at the Cotton Club and taking us all the way to the bright lights of Hollywood. Amongst the hundreds of songs he composed, Arlen wrote the wonderful musical score for The Wizard Of Oz. Allen has cleverly interwoven well known lyrics from the Wizard of Oz score into the story telling about Arlen’s life, teasing the audience with that beautiful classic ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ but saving it for the final number and providing the perfect conclusion to the story. It was such a highly anticipated number and Allen saved her best till last, delivering a stunning rendition of this classic song that was met with very appreciative applause.

In this well paced 70 minute show, Allen showcases not only the musical works of Harold Arlen but also her versatility as a performer and indeed a writer. She delivers powerhouse vocal belts and then contrasts these with a sassy jazz tempo with her sublime interpretations of songs such as ‘Stormy Weather’, ‘That Old Black Magic’, ‘If I Only Had a Brain’, ‘The Man That Got Away’ and ‘Accentuate The Positive’ … to name just a few.

Dressed in an exquisite, full length, Alannah Hill gown, Allen looked every bit the glamorous Cotton Club singer and Hollywood starlet. Allen has a superb stage presence and beautifully transitions from one song to the next, making the whole show flow seamlessly. Attention to detail is noticed even in the “martini glass” of water she sips from occasionally.

The experience of Director Stuart Maunder and Musical Directors Michael Tyack and Mark Simeon Ferguson (for the Melbourne season), shines through this very classy and entertaining cabaret. Allen details the life of Harold Arlen through various characters. Some include a narrative, while others are left for the audience to identify with simply a name or characterisation. There was some assumed knowledge of certain performers in the story telling and at times the characterisations changed quickly, requiring a certain degree of concentration, but the overall story of Harold Arlen was clear. Allen’s portrayal of a young Judy Garland was particularly well done and easily identifiable by the audience on the night, with a few murmurs of recognition.

The excellent lighting design added a further ambience to the cabaret. Vocals were initially a little difficult to pick over the volume of the band but this was rectified quickly within the first few songs. Indeed, everything about this cabaret said high quality.

If you didn’t know the name Harold Arlen before you arrived, The Songs That Got Away will leave you not only more enlightened but almost apologetic for not recognising such a talented composer and realising his name certainly belongs up there with the greats.

The Songs That Got Away: The Music of Harold Arlen sold out the Melbourne Recital Centre season before it even opened, but hopefully Johanna Allen will give audiences further opportunities to enjoy this beautiful cabaret show before she takes up the role of Sister Sophia in the upcoming Australian tour of The Sound Of Music. If not, you can purchase a copy of Johanna Allen’s debut album Calling Card and at least enjoy her superb vocals.

Johanna Allen