THEATRE REVIEW | Swingin’ At The Savoy With Holly Penfield
For any first-timer- and even seasoned veterans – any arrival at the Savoy is as entrancing as entering some exotic, virtually endless, opium dream.
With exquisite cheekbones kissed by pale neon, absinthe green, you’re instantly folded into the architectural arms of an Art Deco wonderland, and baptised by the liquid chandelier of the Savoy’s front-facing fountain into a life previously unimaginable.
Forget the tawdry tat and tension of Central London; Here, virtually unchanged, is Oscar Wilde’s incomparable favourite hotel in town, an oasis of calm, civility and companionship.
And the pearl of this perfect, urbane oyster? Undoubtedly, the jaw-dropping, newly-refurbished Beaufort Bar, a ground-floor extravaganza of ebony black and gleaming gold. Now yes, F.Scott Fitzgerald may have once imagined a diamond as big as the Ritz,
but compared to this staggering elegance, his vision seems as cheap, everyday and pedestrian as counterfeit Chanel.
Merely enter the Beaufort, greeted and often escorted by fin de siecle dandy and maitre’d Helios, the very model of suave panache, and you step inside an enormous, Fabergé’s egg of a room, a space worthy of the Romanoff’s Imperial Russian Court at its’ very peak.
It’s astounding; a mirrored back wall reflects and doubles the sumptuous, gleaming gold starburst anoiting the central bar and performance space, and there’s an expectant aura of secular sanctity, so strong that one almost hesitates to shatter the spell by sitting down.
Ah, but we’ve yet to taste the oyster’s oyster, the pearl beyond price of the Savoy’s hospitality – its’ justly famed, live performances, spearheaded by the Savoy’s recently reincarnated, darkly delicious cabaret, currently of a calibre that even Noël Coward would crawl to be part of.
Now, in large part, that ecstatic, cabaret revival is due to the sterling efforts of show-stopping, San Franciscan jazz diva, Miss Holly Penfield. Currently residing in London, Holly can only be compatred to a Liza Minelli without the excesses and unpredictability, and with an enviable, sterling-silver reputation of always delivering miraculous, crowd-rousing shows at the peak of her game.
And tonight – Holly’s Christmas Burlesque Fantasia- is no exception. Aiming to reconjure the snap-brimmed, Charleston-kicking heels and reckless, ultra-chic abandon of the Savoy’s original, 1920s cabaret, mysteriously absent until recently, Holly and her entourage burn hotter than limbo dancing and flaming Sambucca cocktails at midnight on the Champs Elyseé!
It’s a spectacle virtually unparalled in modern London.
Partnered by her regular co-host, Mr. Dusty Limits, a tall, debonair, Disneyesque Prince Charming with chiselled cheekbones and Fred Astaire frockcoat, Holly injects a simmering, tactile sense of film goddess glamour from her first moment of stage.
It’s contagious; immediately, the audience’s energy levels sky-rocket to Empire State excitement.
Wrapped and caressed – the word ‘dressed’ is just completely inadequate– in yards of shimmering, orange satin, crowned by her liquid honey bob, Holly’s voice makes gorgeous, virtual love to the audience. Her opening songs – ‘Let It Snow’ and ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ – impact with the exuberant joy of Christmas This Very Minute, her pure, caramel tone as effortless as a master saxophonist, a Charlie Parker beautifully clarified with vintage brandy.
No wonder that, within seconds, the awe-struck audience is literally drunk with cookin’ conviviality. Effortlessly involving the crowd with a flirtatious banter and interaction of a finesse Judy Garland could only dream of, Holly selflessly gives her audience the finest gift a performer can – one hundred percent dedication. And more impressive still, she’s an absolute maestro, a stellar mistress of narrative phrasing, the wickedly difficult art of injecting love, loss and laissez-faire insouciance into lyrics that – with lesser talents – would sound as trite as fortune cookie frivolities.
Yes, admittedly tonight, there’s a slight flurry of microphone problems, but the indomitable Miss Penfield – unlike singers crippled without Auto-Tune – is every bit as commanding, and arguably, even more beguiling – with her purely acoustic delivery.
But if Holly’s indisputably the buzzing, electric glue that binds and lifts her cast into a devastating, ensemble whole, they each excel on their own terms.
There’s the sultry, almost irresistable – to men, at least – Kitty Bang Bang, who redefines striptease into a work of scorching, choreographic eroticism, almost a Royal Ballerina reincarnating a chiffon-swathed Botticelli’s Venus, but all toned, modern muscles and Lady Gaga fierceness.
Then there’s the extraordinary Duchess Of Crouch End, a mature drag-queen like no other, and distant cousin to Dame Edna, though lacking that worthy’s often leaden wit. Much closer in tone to acclaimed, music-hall and vaudeville performers Hinge and Brackett, Mrs.Shufflewick and Douglas Byng, she’s a meticulously-crafted character songstress, complete with ukelele, delivering wryly comic tales of once-privileged destitution with a vicious sting in her tale!
With the brief sound problems resolved, the second half kicks like Frank Sinatra’s neat bourbon, as deathly-elegant David Bowie clone Dusty Limits simmers through ‘Mad About The Boy’, wringing every drop of steaming innuendo from some very willing men in the front row.
Still panting, he’s joined by Holly for a rapturous, hell-for-leather duet on ‘Money’, from Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, with the audience simply superglued to their seats with pleasure.
But then – with quite sudden, breath-taking audacity – show-mistress Holly orchestrates a complete, theatrical U-turn, with the thrillingly bizarre entrance of Craig Reed’s cross-dressed, hula-hoop swinging Oompa Loompa in Wizard Of Oz, ruby slippers. Gyrating faster and faster, hoops threatening to helicopter from his hips, they burst into glowing, multicoloured incandescence, a stunning coup de theatre perfectly synchronized to a thumpingly techno ‘Over The Rainbow’.
By now, the cast are completely swamped by a simply non-stop love tsunami of Christmas cheer, only to be ramped up higher still by Holly’s final entrance.
Sheathed snugger than a glove in tip-to-toe, Balenciaga black – including the signature, ebony bob of her ‘evil jazz twin’ alter ego – Holly unleashes a totally awe-inspiring take of her self-penned celebration of the Savoy itself, ‘Swinging At The Savoy’.
It’s an utter revelation. Sung urgently, magnificently on the beat, it’s a kaleidoscopic, imaginary montage of Holly’s singing star predecessors at the Savoy, and a magical evocation of the Savoy’s enduring mystique.
Utterly timeless and utterly contemporary, Holly’s liquid gold harmonies strike out and stake a unique, inimitable vocal territory between peak-era Lena Horne and Peggy Lee, and as enchanting as either. Propelled by a steaming beat that Holly’s perfectly married to her infectious, mischeivous lyrics, it’s a stratospheric display of sung brilliance that, inevitably- brings the house down in storming applause.
So did we have myself a merry little christmas? Beyond doubt, but words simply cannot begin to do justice to the mystique Holly and her cast conjure in the uniquely symbiotic setting of the Savoy. Thanks to the support and encouragement of visionary mangers, the Savoy has continued to nurture a superlative artist and cast whose nights, justifiably, are considered the toast of London by true conneisseurs, and perfectly complement and enhance the Savoy’s über-chic, soigné mystique. Our advice? Book a room, dinner and Holly show ASAP; She’s the spirit of Judy Garland live and reincarnated in London, but better preserved – and more consistent – than late-career Judy ever was!
Holly Penfield returns to the Savoy in March