Dorothy Fields Forever, King's Head Theatre, London

Sophistication and earthy warmth

By Rhoda Koenig
Tuesday 31 December 2013 06:08
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In the male, Jewish club of great songwriters, there were two anomalies -- Cole Porter and Dorothy Fields. Fields wrote for Jerome Kern, Cy Coleman, Arthur Schwartz, and others, lyrics for Depression-era cheerer-uppers ("On the Sunny Side of the Street''), meltingly romantic ballads ("The Way You Look Tonight''), and bawdy numbers about the female need for sexual variety ("A Lady Needs a Change'').

Fields could write for sophisticated ladies, but she also managed what few male songwriters could: a warm, earthy quality that glowed through full-blown paeans to love and sex or illuminated her more homely numbers. Dorothy Fields Forever includes perhaps the most endearing of the latter, a song for a little girl who sings wistfully of the pretty dresses she tries on but can never keep, as her travelling-salesman father has to take them away. "Pink Taffeta Sample, Size Ten'' is never maudlin, and every word is so well chosen that, after hearing the last stanza once, you'll remember forever its combination of narrative climax and emotional flowering.

The show offers, to those not familiar with Fields's output, a good combination of well-known and obscure tunes, illustrating her impressive range. The styles of the humorous lyrics alone are enormously varied -- it's startling to realise that "Welcome to Holiday Inn'', which would fool anyone into thinking it was a Sondheim number ("Here's a hello from your horny receptionist"), came from the same typewriter that produced, for Astaire and Rogers, "A fine romance – with no kisses!''

Eden Phillips's narrative, though it has some arch and awkward moments, is much better than the usual linking patter, and is blessedly broken up among the five singers rather than handed to a Mr Know-All on a stool. The best of them is Angela Richards, who impersonates the lyricist. Richards looks nothing like Fields, but her tough-broad-with-a-heart personality is engaging, and she does a delightful Shirley Booth imitation on "He Had Refinement'', the comic show-stopper from the musical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn ("He'd never call a slob a slob until the slob had gone'').

Richards's delivery of "Remind Me'', however, exemplifies one of the show's major problems. Good as Fields's lyric is, the selling point is Jerome Kern's gorgeous, throbbing rhumba, and talking one's way through this song is like trying to sell a sandwich that's rye bread and mustard and no pastrami. The show's downplaying the music here doesn't work any better than its attempt to ignore the fact that music, not lyrics, is what establishes mood and tone, an overall, powerful feeling one can never have in an evening of work by several composers.

The other drawback is the rest of the cast. David Kernan may have confined himself to directing, but the cast includes one of his clones, who could twinkle for England. The voices are adequate at best, one with a vibrato that seems to have a life of its own, and, to express the sex appeal on a one-to-ten scale, one would have to use minus numbers. If another Dorothy came to this show, she'd lose no time telling Toto, "We're a long way from New York.''

To 21 July (020-7226 1916)

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