Jon Peterson

November 6, 2014 | By | Add a Comment

Jon PetersonWith his recent show exploring the life and career of entertainer Anthony Newley (at Stage 72 at The Triad), British singer-dancer-actor-writer Jon Peterson reminded the audience just how thrilling a well-executed tribute performance can be. In part the success of “He Wrote Good Songs” (a title inspired by Newley’s chosen epitaph) can be attributed to Peterson’s sharp and efficient playwriting skills and to intelligent, sensitive work from director Gwen Hillier and musical director and pianist Bruce Barnes. But mostly what made this show so engrossing and joyful was Peterson’s remarkable physical and vocal embodiment of the Newley persona. In short, “He Wrote Good Songs” was one of the finest cabaret shows I’ve seen this year.

Whenever a performer takes on the role of an outsized entertainment figure like Newley, arguments will crop up about whether he or she is engaged in simple impersonation or is creating a full-bodied, complex characterization. In this case, the answer seems to be “both of the above.” Peterson is clearly a talented mimic. He sounds and moves very much like fellow Briton Newley (though he doesn’t look much like him). But Peterson also has considerable skills as an actor—one who obviously connects on a deep emotional level with this particular character.

It helps that he apparently shares Newley’s bravely flamboyant qualities as a performer. I have always been drawn to the outrageous emotionality in Newley’s showmanship. He seemed to be sort of a British, male version of Garland, Streisand, or Minnelli. Consider his unabashedly grotesque gesticulations, his proudly bombastic vocal crescendos, and those crazy East End vowel sounds of his, the precise origins of which would possibly have stumped even G.B. Shaw’s Henry Higgins. What Newley did was outlandish, but he made it seem necessary somehow. Peterson took on some of the same risks in this show that Newley himself accepted: twisting his limbs to look like strange gnarled tree branches, regularly embracing cacophony as an alternative to harmoniousness. And it paid off, in spades.

The evening’s narrative followed Newley’s life from his start as a smart-alecky, adrenaline-addicted kid growing up in Hackney in the 1930s, all the way to the days preceding his death in 1999. The whole bio was presented in an unbroken monologue that moved along at a rapid clip. One moment Peterson told the audience to listen for the sirens from the London blitz. The next he informed us matter-of-factly that WWII was over. Throughout the show, the actor—chattering away all the while—would strip to his skivvies and then don a new costume in full view of the audience.

Peterson’s script focused not only on the ambitious performer who lived for the spotlight, but also on the troubled bloke whose bad offstage habits—including drunk driving and serial philandering—got him in trouble. The one note I would give to Peterson regarding the script concerns his insistent suggestion that Newley’s inner demons materialized because he grew up fatherless. That seemed just a little too pat.

Fortunately for Peterson, many of the songs Newley wrote or co-wrote have an autobiographical, sometimes confessional dimension. So Peterson’s Newley could sing about his real-life propensity for getting “birds” in the family way with the song “Lumbered” (co-written with Leslie Bricusse) from the musical Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, or he could acknowledge his caddish side with the rousing “Oh What a Son of a Bitch I Am” (Newley and Herbert Kretzmer) from the X-rated musical film Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?

Of course Peterson also sang a spate of the star’s signature songs co-written with Bricusse, including “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” “Who Can I Turn To?” and “Once in a Lifetime.” These were performed as high drama, and they sounded terrific. But there were quietly effective musical moments as well, including a sweet rendition of “D-Darling” (also Newley and Bricusse), sung tenderly and playfully to Newley’s infant son.

I suspect that it’s largely Peterson’s background as a dancer that gave him such a commanding presence on the Stage 72 stage. He was never tentative. He gave of himself fully, freely, and unselfconsciously to every action, movement, note, and lyric. That sort of commitment was the very thing, I believe, that made Anthony Newley, himself, such a blazing, if idiosyncratic, talent.

It’s a pity that more New Yorkers won’t get to see this first-rate production. I hope Peterson returns with an encore presentation very soon.

“He Wrote Good Songs”
Stage 72 at The Triad  –  October 27

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. In addition to reviewing for BistroAwards.com, he contributes regularly to theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com. Other reviews and articles have appeared in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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