Review: SIMPLY BRILL at The Banquet Room, Adelaide Festival Centre

Review By Lisa Lanzi


Now THAT is cabaret.


Opening night of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival saw three impeccable artists at peak performance level, backed by fabulous musicians and brimming with energy, connection, generosity and heart, not forgetting their brilliant vocals. Naturally, the audience reacted with equal verve and adoration supplying much applause, gleeful singing and loud cheering.

Michaela Burger, Amelia Ryan and Michael Griffiths (also on piano and a superb Musical Director) have crafted a tight, entertaining homage to the artists who found fame within the walls of Manhattan’s Brill Building on 1619 Broadway at 49th Street. To the glorious strains of On Broadway (Leiber, Mann, Stoller, Weil) this trio shared the song and told the fascinating story of the Brill Building; its focus shift from the Tin Pan Alley sound (think Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ On The Ritz) to the revolutionary early 1960s hit factory that gave the world a beloved collection of songs ‘boomers’ grooved to as teenagers and, as it became obvious, they still know ALL the lyrics.


In 1958 an unknown 23-year-old Don Kirshner formed Aldon Music after pursuing music and jingle writing with his Bronx buddy Robert Cassotto (who soon morphed into Bobby Darin). Splish Splash cemented Darin’s fame and Kirshner became a spookily prescient music publisher developing a stellar cohort of songwriters and lyricists all cooped up in the Brill Building. Carole King was quoted in The Sociology of Rock by Simon Frith: “Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You'd sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific because Donny would play one songwriter against another. He'd say: "We need a new smash hit" and we'd all go back and write a song and the next day we'd each audition for Bobby Vee's producer.”


Burger, Ryan and Griffiths sang the songs of Neil Sedaka, Connie Francis, Barry Mann, Gerry Goffin, Jack Keller and the “Broads From Brooklyn” - Carole King, Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich, among others. Songs included Up On The Roof, Locomotion, Breakin’ Up Is Hard To Do, Blame It on the Bossa Nova, Calendar Girl, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, Oh Carol!, Hanky Panky, Chapel of Love, Dooh Wah Diddy, and so many more. Some were performed as stand-alone works, others arranged and blended by Griffiths into sublime medleys and harmonies, including an a Cappella, spine tingling snippet of I Can Hear Music.


Amelia Ryan ventured out into the packed room - excellent cabaret technique, thank you! - to schmooze a little with an unsuspecting male as she sang Leader of the Pack. All three artists can move it and shake it appropriately, particularly Ryan and Burger as they showcased a few girl group choreographic highlights in appropriately shimmering stage wear.


Not only was Aldon Music the source of musical magic, relationships blossomed much as the music and lyric partnerships did. Carole King and Gerry Goffin managed about ten years of marriage, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann were creative and life partners and are still married. There is one marvellous ‘healthy workplace’ story as well. Kirshner was concerned for the young Carole King juggling a new baby, married life, rent and living expenses. Even after 45 songs and no hits, he bought baby furniture, paid their rent on top of a salary and told the eighteen year old (!) to go home and be with her babies. Apparently this early iteration of a fair workplace and thoughtful childcare provisions gave the world Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow which Michaela Burger sang with heartbreaking passion in her clear, expressive voice.


Enhancing this well-written and finely constructed, cleverly marketed offering (with a simple range of slides on the back wall), the on stage band (bookending Griffiths’ excellent piano skills) were simply breathtaking. Emile Ryjoch delivered dazzling sax and clarinet, Felicity Freeman was a magnificent bass player, Kyrie Anderson was splendid behind the kit, with Tom Kneebone excelling on lead guitar. The impact wouldn’t be the same without the sound provided by these musicians.


Quoting songwriter (Brooks Arthur) in his book Don Kirshner: The Man With The Golden Ear, Rich Podolsky wrote : "Aldon was like an instant neighbourhood, an instant crowd, an instant friendship that occurred there, an instant bond.” Kirshner recognised the teen market and targeted that group with his eye and ear for genius song writing for just a bare six years. The story continues for Kirshner as the ‘creator’ of the Monkees and The Archies plus the sale of his business to Columbia Records - Kirshner became president of Columbia’s song publishing division, Screen Gems. There are many gems of information peppered throughout the show, but the songs and singers are definitely the stars and as the very new show settles into its run, it will continue to delight.


The audience certainly appreciated the generously long curtain call as evidenced by a standing ovation and improvised ‘mosh pit’ that sprang up beside the stage. Truly though, it was a feast of cabaret and hard to let these performers leave, such is their talent and appeal. The story of the Brill Sound is a perfect base with the ever popular soundtrack of the early '60s, and Simply Brill! deserves a long life!


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