Michael Ball - alone together

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Variety - By Matt Wolf

Midway through the first act of Michael Ball's audacious and largely electrifying cabaret debut comes an extraordinary trio of songs - Jacques Brel's A Son, Al Jolson's Little Pal and the eternally mournful The Man That Got Away, the last number reimagined not as a requiem for romantic loss but as one for a youth vanished so fast that an entire life seems imperiled. As its performer tightens his grip over the intimate Donmar Warehouse, relying not on chitchat or a hand mic but on sheer empathy with his material, an audience member can be forgiven for checking the program. Can this really be Michael Ball, you may wonder, remembering the fluffy-haired, rather anodyne belter who starred in London and on Broadway in Aspects of Love? It is, and yet different - a darker, more burnished figure, 40 next year, who is facing an important birthday with a no less significant change in career.

By the time Ball opens the second act with a nine-minute medley of some 30 songs, snatches from one number after another creating a restlessly volcanic surge of music, the transformation feels complete, rather as if David Cassidy had turned overnight into Mandy Patinkin.

Those unfamiliar with Ball's established persona may be somewhat less impressed by what he here accomplishes as the last of this year's Donmar Divas, following Clive Rowe (New York-bound for Joe's Pub mid-October) and Sian Phillips - the latter as appealingly smoky-voiced as she was relentlessly chatty.  But Ball, in theory anyway, repped just the sort of mainstream arena artist who wouldn't seem to need the Donmar and vice versa, especially given a repertoire that has tended toward the more cheesily emotive end of the West End spectrum.

Imagine, then, one's surprise - and pleasure - at Ball's Donmar format, as cleverly devised and directed by Jonathan Butterell with Jason Carr the invaluable pianist. (Ball sits out one number - literally, his legs outstretched on the floor - leaving Carr to play a Bach prelude.)  Duke Ellington might not seem the most logical segue from Radiohead, until, that is, you've heard Nice Dream bleed seamlessly into Ball's shimmering take on Solitude.  Earlier, Ball launches proceedings with a mock-apprehensive No, Don't Look at Me, from Follies, the singer then emboldened by music that takes him through I Whistle a Happy Tune and Anyone Can Whistle to arrive back where he began, this time ready and raring to go.

In the past, Ball has allowed a powerful set of pipes to do much of the affective work for him, so one can only hope his newly acquired truthfulness has resulted to some degree from paying close heed to his friend Barbara Cook. (He appropriates, and very well, one of Cook's more buoyant numbers, Let Me Sing and I'm Happy.)  Throughout, a questioning impulse fires up the bravura (I've never heard There's No Business Like Show Business begun so quietly) just as more than one number - Leiber & Stoller's Is That All There Is, among them - casts the audience as de facto therapist to an avowedly self-analytical, searching Ball.

The program mixes Sondheim, Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa with a version of John Lennon's Mother that is as heartstopping as a subsequent Happy Talk is glistening with delight.  At the end of what must be an exhausting vocal marathon, Ball delivers an a capella After the Ball, his firm high baritone rather touchingly - by that point - straining after the final note.  A defect? Not at all; more like a well-earned chink in the armor at which one realizes, and not for the first time during a stirring evening, that Michael Ball is human, too.

The Telegraph

Songfest with a twinkle

Patrick O'Connor finds Michael Ball a tease in Cabaret

MICHAEL BALL enters from the back of the theatre, and some of his devoted admirers give a little gasp of surprise. Here he is so close, with nothing but a bottle of designer water as a prop. There is no preamble, no speeches about the audience being wonderful, or any introduction to the songs. It's straight in with No, Don't Look at Me, from Follies.

Before the song is half over, he's moved on, and what makes this evening into more than just a star trawling through the highs and lows of 100 years of musical theatre is the shyly self-deprecating twinkle that he brings to the whole event.

Some of the effects that Ball uses are still calculated for a space a lot larger than the Donmar. In Padam, Padam, Norbert Glanzberg and Henri Contet's 1951 hit for Edith Piaf, the shouts and foot-stamping could be toned down.

Still, it's a finished artist who can make something new of There's No Business Like Show Business, sung here very slowly, almost as a lullaby until the inevitable wow finish.

Towards the end of the first half Michael Ball lights a cigarette to punctuate a nostalgic reflection on the disappointments of youth. A section of the audience seemed to find this hilarious for reasons that were not clear, but a concentrated stare from their idol quietened them down.

In grouping songs, vaguely themed to a life story, Little Pal, The Man That Got Away, Alone Together, and many others he concentrates the listener's attention on the words. He has developed a fine use of mezza-voce to contrast with the occasional return to pop-style belting in What Now My Love?

The highlight of the evening is the opening of the second half, a hectic songfest, snatching phrases from about 50 standards to make up a collage of verbal and rhythmic nuances.

It's a sort of tease, as one longs for him to finish some of the songs he just touches on. He is accompanied with tremendous verve and quite daring pianism by Jason Carr, whose arrangements are often surprising in their spareness. Not an evening designed to flatter the tastes of the fans who come in specially embroidered jackets and T-shirts, but a real attempt to get to the heart of each song.

The Stage

Dressed in decidedly non-cabaret attire - blue jeans and a black jacket, shirt worn outside the trousers - Michael Ball plays with a straight bat throughout.  Many songs are delivered firmly down the middle, unadorned, letting the lyrics do their work and quite often sung at pianissimo level.

Yet give him a blockbuster, like What Now My Love? or the former Edith Piaf favourite, Padam Padam, and he whacks it to the boundary in Las Vegas fashion, to be rewarded with whoops and cheers.

In his unremarkable way he is quite a remarkable artist, who has not appeared in a musical for years - chiefly, I suspect, because nobody is writing one in which his boundless personality could be comfortably contained.

The act here is a joy from beginning to end, not just because of the breadth of material but also for the reason that Ball has a wonderfully relaxed technique.  The fact that he sings so many of his numbers sotto voce, for example, is a smart move because he forces you to listen.

He takes audacious liberties, not only swigging from a bottle of water in between songs but sitting down on the stage and even lighting a cigarette before launching into a song.

Most remarkably he has no linking patter, instead he regales us with a marvellously eclectic mix.  There is a spot of Sondheim to begin with but also songs by newer writers like Adam Guettel and, more notably, from David Bowie and even Radiohead.  He makes numbers like The Man That Got Away and Say a Little Prayer non-gender-specific, takes old show tunes at an unusual tempo and ends, cutely but appositely, with After the Ball.

The last number, indeed, is the only song he does without the aid of his outstanding accompanist Jason Carr - mostly quietly supportive but thunderously Wagnerian when the occasion calls for it.

By Peter Hepple

The Times

WE HEARD Happy Talk. We heard If You Were the Only Girl in the World.  But this was not the Michael Ball we usually see.  In the final instalment of the Donmar’s annual cabaret season the singer who is every mother’s favourite son-in-law turned his back on the coach parties.

The voice remains pure and admirably precise, but the mood is darker, the romance laced with sardonic humour.  No wall-to-wall Lloyd Webber here.  Sondheim sets the tone in the first few minutes with Anyone Can Whistle; before the evening is over Ball pays a visit to Burt Bacharach’s I Say a Little Prayer and even tries his hand at an overblown treatment of David Bowie’s Life on Mars.

The programme, devised and directed by Jonathan Butterell, throws out countless odd juxtapositions.  With no talk linking the songs, Ball has to work harder than ever.  His manic, foot-stamping version of Padam Padam makes Piaf sound almost reticent.  During a Jolson medley, you can be forgiven for thinking that Brian Conley has sneaked through the stage door. Elsewhere, as he sprawls on the floor in his faded jeans, Ball seems to be striving for the casual mood of an evening with Mandy Patinkin.

The momentum flags after the interval, but it is still a journey worth taking, especially with arrangements by pianist Jason Carr that are all shadows and spikes.  In his hands a number as innocuous as I Got No Strings takes on a hint of Brecht and Weill: Pinocchio as existential hero.

                                                                                                                                                       Clive Davis

West End Extra - Donmar Warehouse show review - 21 September 2001

The Divas at the Donmar cabaret season at this intimate theatre ends with a theatrical treat.
Michael Ball is already a big star but with this performance he goes for broke and catapults himself into the company of the all-time greats. He takes on songs identified with Al Jolson, Judy Garland, Edith Piaf and David Bowie, proving that he is worthy to stand beside them.

He cannot entirely discard his cuddly charm and natural ebullience but reveals a capacity to delve into the lyrics to reveal layers of pain, loss and loneliness.

Accompanied only by Jason Carr on piano, he takes the stage in jeans, crumpled jacket and tieless shirt, with a bottle of water and a towel to mop his brow.

And take the stage he does, selling every song with passionate detail.

He opens with Sondheim asking Why Am I Here, whistles a few happy tunes to lead into Where Or When and then firmly presses the sensational button to sock across a show-stopping version of Piaf's Padam. Casually he lights a cigarette, introducing a heartfelt Best Of Times, then does Peggy Lee's memorably cynical Is That All There Is.

Opening the second half with a breathtaking medley of dozens of the best popular songs of the twentieth century, he dazzles at a speed not seen since Danny Kaye's manic deliver. This selection is also a highlight for Jason Carr and Stuart Crane's brilliant lighting.

Ball's lush, romantic tenor works wonderfully well on oldies like If You Were The Only Girl In The World and After the Ball, but his What Now My Love ends on a note that is a howl of pain.
It's always thrilling to see an artist challenging himself and his audience and pushing his talent into a superior category and that is what Ball does here.

His engagement concludes the season - you can't follow that.

Christopher Downes

Teletext, Channel 4 - Sheridan Morley

Now in their fourth late summer season, The Divas at The Donmar are looking distinctly unfeminine. Only Sian Phillips this year sings for her sex, while Clive Rowe and Michael Ball look a little odd as divas.

Nevertheless, the revelation of this year has been Ball: a two-hour show with Jason Carr at the piano brilliantly packaged by the duo with director, Jonathan Butterell.

Ball does not speak a single word:  no greeting, no farewell, no reminders of what a wonderful audience we are.  In essence the songs are a biography of a man, not necessarily Ball himself, in a mid-life crisis of personal and professional anxiety.

His is a dark show, full of the shadows of Sondheim and Piaf, and it may well come as a surprise to his Albert Hall fan club of middle-aged lady loyalists.

This is a brave attempt to go beyond the usual repertoire.

Often Ball reverses the very nature of a song - The Man That Got Away is no longer the usual Judy Garland lament but the song of a man who has allowed his better self to escape him.

Pinocchio's No Strings becomes a celebration of mid-life freedom at the end of an affair or marriage; the show is frequently and subtly bisexual.

There's No Business Like Show Business is no longer an anthem but a lyric on to the end of which you want to add the thought 'Thank God'.

Ball makes us think about these songs anew and afresh, wondering if they had a hidden agenda.  His show is the first genuinely original cabaret I've seen in many years.

Unfortunately you only have until next Saturday to catch it.

Musical Stages - January 2002

Michael's many fans would have found this evening hard to understand [does she mean us?] since it was a new departure from all those show songs and rock numbers that they expect to hear. Rather, we were treated to a collection of songs strung together in novel arrangements.  Oh Don't Look at Me is an hilarious choice for a much-watched artist but tied to Whenever I Feel Afraid, Anyone Can Whistle and Give a Little Whistle it started us on the journey plotted for the evening.  Childhood gave way to career choices, first love, family ties and just before the interval, a touch of disillusionment with Is That All There Is but There's No Business Like Showbusiness.

After the interval, we heard an extraordinary tour de force of thirty different titles strung into one long piece in which only one phrase from Andrew Lloyd Webber rang any Michael Ball bells.  All the other phrases and titles were from many, many different sources.  Love found and lost followed - I Wish I Could Forget You, What Now My Love?, How Could I Lose You? - then a final acceptance with This is What it is, a Michael John La Chiusa song followed by After the Ball.

Hold it up to the light/Not a show song in sight (well hardly)/What a fabulous night!

Lynda Trapnell

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Site Established December 2001, by Barbara Uram and Debbie Norris

Musical Stages review added 9 February 2002
Page updated with more reviews - 25 January 2002