The performer and composer Anthony Newley was a talented entertainer. From the late 1950’s through the mid-1970’s he wrote Broadway musicals and film scores; acted on stage, screen and in television; and was even a pop star. His personal life, however, was more of a shambles with multiple marriages, divorces and, finally, a losing battle with cancer. Newley’s private and professional career, which can be summed up by the title song from his London musical, The Good Old Bad Old Days, is being presented in the rewarding one-man songfest, He Wrote Good Songs, at the Seven Angels theatre in Waterbury.
The production is a showcase for the impressive talents of actor Jon Peterson who conceived and wrote the musical, and convincingly embodies Newley in voice, mannerisms, and dress. The actor is a dynamic presence on stage with more then enough energy and charisma to sustain a two hour, solo performance. While mostly upbeat in his portrayal, Peterson demonstrates the subtlety and emotional nuance inherent in such a complicated entertainer. The performer is also an beguiling raconteur as he effortlessly weaves together dialogue, anecdotes and music into a seamless package.
Peterson is constantly in motion on stage as he runs through the highlights of the composer/actor’s life. In quick succession the audience is introduced to his difficult teenage years in East London and his post-adolescent movie success, his accomplishments as an actor and composer for the musical stage, dalliance with the pop music scene, his flight to Hollywood and Las Vegas and, towards the end, his more fallow years. Newley was known for his womanizing. His ceaseless philandering and failed marriages also take center stage.
The songs, almost all written by Anthony Newley and his longtime collaborator Leslie Bricusse, are beautifully and artfully rendered by Jon Peterson in all their vibrato and emotive glory. They include “Who Can I Turn To?,” “Feelin’ Good,” and “The Joker,” from The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd; “Gonna Build a Mountain,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “What Kind of Fool am I?,” from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off; and “Pure Imagination” and “Candy Man” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
As with any biographic production choices have to be made on what to emphasize, breeze through or ignore from the person’s life. Peterson touches on most of the key points of Newley’s notable career, but there are aspects of the show that should be reexamined, which could tighten the book and storyline. For example, the scene about co-writing the song “Goldfinger” is almost a throw away that could be more fully incorporated or removed. There are few points of reference in regards to time—what year or decade are we in? How old is Anthony Newley during critical moments in his life? Having a better idea of the time frame of events would give the audience a better perspective on what is happening. The production ends with the standard “What Kind of Fool am I,” a necessary inclusion, but it comes across as being shoe horned into the show as opposed to fitting in organically like the other compositions.
Director Semina De Laurentis has taken the material conceived by her star and crafted an engaging show that is spry and purposeful without appearing busy. She skillfully paces the musical with patter and song and breaks up Peterson’s almost non-stop traipsing of the boards with well-timed costume changes and introspective moments. De Laurentis has also taken Newley’s well-known gesturings and affectations and kept them more naturalistic as opposed to leaning more towards parody.
He Wrote Good Songs, entertaining with a bravo performance by Jon Peterson, playing at Seven Angels in Waterbury through November 27th.