I’ve seen Ali Harper before, at Old St Paul’s in 2012, and I was struck by her humour and professionalism then.  It was a fun night out with my Robot Mum and we both enjoyed hearing songs we knew, and some we didn’t, performed by someone who knew her craft and was super skilled.

On Saturday night, The Look of Love opened at Circa, and I was delighted to be able to take my mum along again.

Ali Harper is a bit of a national treasure – cabaret, acting, musical theatre; she does it all.  But she also creates her own shows and records albums, which I think is pretty baller.   She’s not just a participant.  She’s a BOSS.

The small stage of Circa One was well-lit, with mic stands placed at different points to allow Harper to move around and share her performance with the whole audience.  The live accompaniment were Tom McLeod expertly playing piano and Callum Allardice nailing the guitar.  But Harper knows that Bacharach needs an orchestra, needs a horn section, and needs backing vocals, so she recorded fantastic arrangements, working with the esteemed Tom Rainey, to back it all.

Was it weird to have two musicians onstage and the rest pre-recorded?  Initially, yes.  But it gave her, and us, a lovely intimate dynamic between her and her onstage musos, and as she said herself, she couldn’t have fit (or afforded) the whole cast onstage.  Plus the recording experience meant she was able to produce an album for the show.

The boys were clearly having a good time and both sang as well as playing, McLeod having his own very competent solo time.  Harper is a generous collaborator, and an appreciative one, giving them repeated credit and love for their support and their talent.

So we embarked upon a journey, with Harper providing biographical detail around Bacharach’s life and development as a composer.  She referred to the research she’d done and it was very clear she’d done it with affection and respect.  I love that so much.  How he came up, how he collaborated with his lyricist Hal David, his mostly terrible lovelife, and how he pushed to make his music challenging, interesting, and different.

She also gave great respect to the artists who made his songs famous;  Marlene Dietrich, Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin.   Admittedly, her Dietrich impression left me a little cold but that’s just a low damn voice to try to emulate, and while Harper’s range is impressive, it felt a little dense down there.

Sometimes a performer who’s worked a lot in musical theatre can be a little jazz hands and fake smile.  While the production is great and all, it feels like they’re just performance robots going through the programming to elicit the appropriate response.

Here’s the thing, though.  Ali Harper is a freaking extraordinary vocalist with stupendous charisma.  That’s clear, no one can deny it.  BUT she was also obviously having a ball and loving every moment of what she was doing.  She loved her collaborators, she loved the music, and she loved us, the audience.  She was basically there, in the spotlight, looking a million dollars in her sequins, genuinely thrilled that THIS is what she gets to do for a job.  She gets to sing songs that make her happy, for people who get happy as well.  She looked out at us, and no part of her smile was fake.

I don’t need to talk about Harper’s voice.  She’s been doing this for the last 20+ years and she KNOWS her craft.  I saw her 9 years ago and was impressed, but now I’m just speechless.  It felt effortless.  I doubt it was, but DAMN, she just opened her mouth and magic came out.  She drove her mic like NASCAR.  I’m basically on my knees chanting “I’m not worthy!”

Ali Harper got to do something really cool.  She got to make a show, and a REALLY good show, based on a composer who was a formative part of her own life soundtrack.  She was so clearly, and so tangibly delighted to be singing Bacharach’s songs.  She wanted to give him respect and credit.  She wanted to share with us her love of those songs.  She knew she couldn’t replace the artists we hear in our heads when we think of the songs – those artists ARE the songs.  But she paid homage to the creators and the artists, and she also made each song her own.  And when the whole studio was standing up, holding their phones up with the flashlights on (some of us had to show our mums how to put the flashlight on), she was just so full of joy. She was like…. You guys get it.  You love these songs, too!  Let’s sing together!  Isn’t this freaking wonderful?!

Yes, lady.  It WAS freaking wonderful.  And thank you so much.

Ali Harper has a whole-ass month of this show so if you like music, or love, or people, or…   OK, if you hate life, don’t go.  Everyone else, get amongst it.  It’ll make you smile.