Liza Pulman: The Heart of It at Riverside Studios – review
A beguiling evening of jazz standards and show tunes in Hammersmith
"Every song tonight is meant to either break your heart, or make your heart sing," quips Liza Pulman. "I haven't done my job unless I've got you reaching for your therapist."
The singer is introducing The Heart of It: her entertaining new musical show that celebrates jazz standards, show tunes, and film scores. Music that might be stirring or schmaltzy depending on your point of view, but is delivered by Pulman with such undeniable love and passion. The songs are complemented with stories from her life and stage career.
Although many of the tunes were released on an album last year that Pulman also titled The Heart of It, she makes clear that she regards herself a stage performer first and foremost. Covid delayed this show by two years – and has also disrupted momentum for the recently-refurbished Riverside Studios. So this is a cathartic moment. Pulman's joy and relief certainly come across.
She's known for her love of Barbra Streisand, and previously based an entire show on that star. Although tonight still includes plenty of tunes that were made famous by Babs – such as "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" – it feels like an evolution of the former project, since it draws more widely from the Great American Songbook.
Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Jack Yellen – all are present and correct in the wide-ranging setlist. The show gets particularly creative when Pulman and her six-piece jazz band stitch together Sylvia Fine's "Lullaby" in Ragtime with Randy Newman's score to the movie Ragtime.
A rollicking rendition of Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager's James Bond theme "Nobody Does It Better" proves another cinematic centrepiece. The bombastic stuff is joyous, but Pulman is more engaging still when leaning into wistful or melancholic material. A version of Judy Collins' "My Father" is used as a springboard to introduce memories of Pulman's own dad, who died young.
Plenty of time is given over to the storytelling. Anecdotes don't bubble up in predictable ways, though. Pulman's traumatic memory about being on a tube train hit by the 7/7 bombings somehow flows into a performance of another Newman tune; this one from the movie Toy Story 2. She has a unique way of attaching meaning to songs, and it's interesting to watch a musical mind at work. The storytelling feels intimate, and might find a natural home in a cabaret venue.
Pulman is open about her vulnerabilities. Many of her anecdotes are chucklesome and self-effacing – whether she's recalling her unsuitability for a career in opera, or confessing that she was a 1980s adolescent oddball because her crush was jazz pianist Fats Waller. Most endearing of all is when she admits, quite credibly, to not knowing how to pronounce the names of her favourite composers.
She's generous when it comes to allowing space for her band. Adam Chinery's woozy jazz guitar is thrust into the spotlight for a rendition of Harold Arlen's "A Sleepin' Bee". And Joseph Atkins keeps everything rattling along with understated cool, serving as pianist and musical director.
The overall whole is a beguiling evening. Pulman's all-too-short residency in Hammersmith lasts until Saturday 30 April, with a London return planned for 4 and 5 July, at Wilton's Music Hall.