Arriving directly from the States, Los Angeles based Lee Lessack takes up a week’s residency in the chic underground surroundings of The Crazy Coqs with a set that reflects his respect for Stephen Schwartz and which also heavily draws from two of his albums, Too Marvellous For Words and Chanteur, focussed around the works of Johnny Mercer and the Great French Songbook (his capitals), respectively.
Beautifully baritoned, Lessack with Nathan Martin on piano, is undoubtedly easy to listen to and his set made for a very pleasant 90 minutes or so, but rarely did the evening get out of that riskily anodyne “pleasant” zone. Lessack had just flown in from performing in Orlando, Florida and quite possibly his act was still aimed at Disney-exhausted tourists or expense account businessmen rather than a room packed with an arguably more discerning London crowd. It seemed to take a while for a rapport to be established with a surprisingly tough audience but on those rare moments when a spark of vibe to the act was kindled, it seemed to be swiftly extinguished in a following number.
Memorable on the night was the Mercer hit I Wanna Be Around, which Lessack delivered with the vituperative panache that the song demands. With self-accompaniment on cut-down ukulele or fluke, Pineapple Pete was a number of genuine Vaudevillian entertainment, whilst in a remarkable contrast on the night, Lessack’s take on Kathy Lettea’s Where’ve You Been cut a very perceptive portrayal of the impact of dementia on the elderly, providing a moment of genuine and sincere melancholy both in singer and also within the empathetic and for the most part mature, audience too.
But too much of the evening seemed to have been laid out by Lesssack as CD producer/marketer, rather than as a singer who should have thought: what would a London audience really like to hear and as importantly, how would they like to hear it ? Taking the Broadway smash Being Alive from Sondheim's Company he effectively put it to sleep and with his cover of Charles Aznavour’s She, it seemed that Lessack was unaware of Elvis Costello’s 1999 version of the song recorded for the movie Notting Hill. Costello stamped such a re-defining imprint upon the classic French number that all future artistes should recognise they may well be compared against his benchmark. The set’s penultimate number, a take on Edith Piaf’s Hymne A L’Amour was also best suited to Orlando rather than London. The notes were perfect and the tone flawless, but Lessack’s passion for the song that may well have burned fiercely within him, was barely detectable.
Here until Saturday, it is quite possible that Lessack may spice up his act twixt now and then. The man is immensely talented, though many would argue that he has set himself a huge hurdle for this visit: a Yank, singing classics from France, to the Brits. For such a complex cultural crossover to work any singer has to be at the very pinnacle of their career, not pausing on the slopes around that summit.
I want to see Lessack again one day with a set that is less formulaic, more American and one that allows him to really move up through the gears and lose himself in the power of performance that he clearly has the potential to deliver.