“…He Wrote Good Songs”: A Genius Conjures Anthony Newley
By Brooks Appelbaum
“…He Wrote Good Songs,” playing at Seven Angels Theatre through November 27, is not to be missed. Conceived, written by, and starring an incredible Jon Peterson, the one-man show chronicles the life, and most importantly, the musical genius, of Anthony Newley. And in “. . .He Wrote Good Songs,” we meet not one genius, but two.
Those familiar with Newley’s talents will be enchanted and moved once again by the twenty songs in this full-length production. And those who don’t know Newley will encounter a remarkable songwriter and performer. As for Jon Peterson’s playwrighting, singing, dancing, and acting, I can only say that in numerous years of watching and reviewing professional musicals, this production easily belongs in the top five.
Peterson tells the story of Newley’s turbulent life with enormous heart and humor, but without sentimental sugar-coating. Born in 1931 in the impoverished East End of London—where Jack the Ripper had once plied his trade—to parents who separated before Newley knew his father, Newley left school and found acting early. After a stint at the prestigious Italia Conti Stage School (where he worked as a “tea boy” to pay his tuition), he was cast as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s 1948 film “Oliver Twist,” and the role launched him as a young celebrity.
There followed a successful film career as an adult, a transition to pop vocalist, and most memorably, a long collaboration with Leslie Bricusse on musicals such as “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off,” The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd,” “Sweet November,” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Each of these yielded numerous hits, and Newley continued to write hit songs throughout his career, as well as performing in films, musicals, and revues.
Yet Newley also had his share of professional flops, and his personal life was extremely turbulent. Married four times, Newley was, as here he sometimes ruefully and sometimes painfully admits, incapable of being faithful. Though many of his songs are uplifting, and some of them silly and escapist, some of the best grapple with the heartache of his failed attempts at lasting love: “The Joker,” “Who Can I Turn To?” and of course, “What Kind of Fool Am I?”
Part of Peterson’s genius lies in the economy with which he handles the narrative, telling most of Newley’s story through his songs, as it should be told. And part of Peterson’s genius lies in his portrayal of Newley himself.
As Newley, Peterson gives us a winking self-deprecation that just covers the desperate need to be loved that powered Newley’s enormous charm. He dances across the stage as if his feet had little wings: he leaps onto benches, twirls, vamps, and commands the space. Alternatively, he folds himself into an armchair, and instantly we see the child inside. Peterson’s voice capture’s Newley’s beautifully, both in singing and in speaking.
His hands alone are hypnotizing: as he sings, they are at once sinuous, graceful, and disturbing in their intensity. Even his black hair becomes part of the story. Rarely, it’s left neat and smooth; most of the time, its tousled state reflects Newley’s enthusiasm, his consternation, or, at times, his despair.
Most importantly, though, Peterson’s connection with the audience is electrifying: playing Newley, he reminded me of no one so much as the incandescent Judy Garland in one of her concert performances. Having only seen Miss Garland’s work on film, I am all the more honored to have seen Mr. Peterson from the second row of the Seven Angels Theatre.
Though Peterson’s show would work on a bare stage (so long he had access to water bottles!), Director Semina De Laurentis, who is also Seven Angels’ Artistic Director, wisely surrounds Peterson with a detailed set (designed by Daniel Husvar), which helps us follow Newley’s peregrinations from England to America, and London to Hollywood, interspersed by brief moments at rest in smaller, domestic spaces. The evocative lighting design, by Scott Cally, and the sound design, by Matt Martin, are very fine. And the small band is superb: Bruce Barnes, the Musical Director, Arranger, Conductor, and Pianist; Louis Tucci on Bass and Guitar; and Mark Ryan on Percussion.
There are only a few performances left, and I cannot urge you strongly enough to see this production and, especially, Jon Peterson’s performance. “...He Wrote Good Songs” is, as the Newley/Bricusse song says, a “Once in a Lifetime” experience.