You know you’ve done pretty well when your opening act is Barack Obama. Yes, Exactly Like You starts with a recorded excerpt from the President’s first Inauguration speech where he borrowed lyrics from Dorothy Fields’ song Pick Yourself Up. It’s a somewhat obscure reference unless you are familiar with Fields impressive body of work – over 400 songs stretching from the 1920’s all the way to the early 70’s. If you’re not then writers Izaak Lim and Nick Maclaine take you on a guided tour of the lyricist’s career in a slick and entertaining cabaret show featuring Ali Bodycoat as Fields.
Having recently seen Lim and Maclaine’s tribute to Cole Porter (You’ve Got That Thing!) in Melbourne they use a similar format that works well – three performers and an accompanist on piano using songs between key narrative scenes to tell the span of a life story from one character’s perspective. While Porter was the referred to yet absent hero in that show, here Fields is front and centre with Bodycoat giving a wonderful performance both vocally and in the acting stakes. She is joined by Ian Cross as the much older and brash composer Jerome Kern; and Lim himself playing three roles – initially Fields’ early composer and lover Jimmy McHugh, her brother Herb Fields, and finally the composer Cy Coleman who lures Fields out of retirement for a late career resurgence that includes the collaboration on the musical Sweet Charity.
Collaboration is the key word here as Fields worked with a variety of famous people including Irving Berlin on Annie Get Your Gun which perhaps explains why she is not as well-known as her track record deserves. Indeed, much is made of Fields blazing a path in a traditionally male dominated realm but except for Kern’s initial protestations and early condescension little is seen of this. A point reinforced by the closing monologue where Fields acknowledges how grateful she was to have such gifted male colleagues, mainly the ones who are featured here. But this is predominantly a celebration of her songs so the negative aspects are nodded at but not explored in any great depth.
Bodycoat is such a strong presence that wisely the opening interlude with McHugh is brief as Fields flounders on learning she is merely a ‘fling’ for the also married composer. It’s a fleeting moment of weakness that throws the character but ultimately leads to more productive collaborations. It’s when she butts up and holds her own against other dominant personalities – Cross giving Kern a lovably gruff father-figure aspect, and Lim as the irrepressibly charming Cy Coleman - that Bodycoat excels playing a strong, feisty woman who very much knows her abilities. Her posture throughout was very erect, her costuming very formal, and there was a stillness that radiated calm confidence. No flamboyance here even during one of Fields’ signature numbers, Big Spender, the writing of which was amusingly reconstructed with Lim on piano.
Other highlights included the transition from a moment of triumph – Kern and Fields winning the Oscar for Best Song (The Way You Look Tonight) - to the announcement of Kern’s death which was beautifully handled; the resurrection of Kern as a ‘phantom’ in the second act to urge Dorothy to ‘pick herself up’ after his death; and the fine comedy work between Bodycoat and Lim as Cy Coleman ‘propositions’ the older woman to write with him. The piano playing by Musical Director Lochlan Brown was excellent and the singing and sound balance throughout was equally impressive.
The standout though is Bodycoat who shines playing a woman who could craft a lyric from plain speak yet had that touch of New Jersey vulgarity. Even when put on the spot as we observe her sat melancholic while Cross’ rendition of Lovely To Look At plays over the speakers, she is fascinating in what was a brave directorial move by Michael Loney. Such deliberate stillness and inactivity for what must have been the better part of 3 minutes on stage takes guts by both director and performer.
I walked away from the sold out final night the same as I did from You’ve Got That Thing! – thoroughly entertained and knowing a lot more about a key figure in 20th century musical history. That is no small achievement and a seam that Lim and Maclaine will hopefully continue to mine with equally enjoyable results.
Directed by Michael Loney with a Book by Izaak Lim and Nick Maclaine, Lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Musical Direction by Lochlan Brown and featuring Ali Bodycoat, Ian Cross and Izaak Lim, the show was performed Downstairs at His Maj as part of Cabaret Soiree.