Downstage Theatre
December 8-18 | Reviewed by Kate Blackhurst

JENNIFER Ward-Lealand is practically New Zealand singing royalty. From her stunning entrance in a sparkling black dress with plunging neckline, she rules the stage. She remarks that ‘At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet’ and she goes on to sing a selection of songs that tell stories. The songwriters include George Harrison, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Stephen Sondheim, John Lennon, Jacques Brel, and Burt Bacharach. She picks sultry numbers that suit her alto voice, which reverberates around the auditorium almost without her moving her lips.

Despite her opening gambit of ‘Don’t Talk, Just Sing’ she introduces each song by talking over the intro with a slickness that would make a radio dj proud, telling us who it is by and a bit of information about the song or the composer. The quotes are edifying albeit clearly rehearsed. My favourite is, ‘If God made anything better than woman, he kept it to himself’ (Kris Kristofferson).

Jennifer brings a new interpretation to familiar tunes – ‘What’ll I Do?’, ‘Something’, ‘Ode to Billy Joe’, ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’, and, of course, ‘The Look of Love’ sound fresh and intriguing. This is largely due to her spectacular assurance, but also much credit goes to the musicians; Grant Winterburn on piano and Aaron Coddel on double bass. Winterburn plays ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ with so much emotion, I half expected him to fall off his stool. He doesn’t; he’s far too talented.

Whether stalking the stage (empty apart from the other musicians, a big twinkling heart and a vase full of red roses), dancing on the spot, clinging to the microphone, sitting on a stool or leaning against the piano Jennifer displays faultless technique. Her phrasing is exquisite as she rounds off every line and her diction is so clear you can hear every word. And what a voice! She has a gliding range and never strains to reach a note, moving smoothly from speech to song with remarkable fluidity.

Jennifer is a totally proficient singer, continuing through any slight mishap (a stepped on microphone lead; a forgotten lyric) like a consummate professional. She smoulders; she stalks; she prowls across the stage to introduce the members of the band; she exudes sexiness. She expresses herself through facial expressions rather than movement, talking to and teasing the audience, beckoning them with come hither eyes but holding them at arms length.

In fact, she is almost too perfect, and this would be my one complaint (apart from the interval music which is way too loud). It is hard to relate to a perfect person. She is sultry and sexy but not warm or emotional. The ‘Masochism Tango’ is amusing but cruel, displaying a controlled passion, both sensual and aloof; it could be her signature tune.

She interjects a touch of humour with numbers such as ‘I’d Like to Hate Myself in the Morning’, ‘The Boy From…’, and ‘I Only Want Some’ but even this is calculated and merely adds to her untouchable allure. My favourite has to be her interpretation of Sondheim’s ‘Losing My Mind’. At one point she gazes out wistfully at the audience and there is a spark of connection, but there is no danger of her losing anything – she has us just where she wants us.

This is a sophisticated and romantic evening; my parents would love it. It is an ideal anecdote to the overwrought cacophony of Christmas and I would recommend it for lovers of music and lovers of love of any age. Usually reserved for the lobbies of upmarket hotels, there are few venues for this sort of thing, and it works wonderfully at Downstage. If this is the new direction for the embattled theatre, then it is a step in the right one.