St James Studio, London
Making a rare appearance in front of the microphone, Paul Baker's show A Baker's Dozen was a polished one-nighter that packed out the St James Studio.
In a set lasting little more than an hour, Baker's magnificent tenor danced over numbers familiar and new in a set-list that was to prove pleasingly heavy on Newley numbers - reminding us that this fabulous British songwriter deserves greater exposure.
Quick to flex his magnificent belt with Streisand's Being Good Isn't Good Enough, Baker was soon into the first of his Taboo tributes with Stranger In This World – preceded by a touching if painful recollection of being bullied as a kid – and that his next number was a Quentin Crisp tribute, blending Sting’s An Englishman In New York, with Taboo’s Freak / Ode To Attention Seekers stayed on message in an inspired combo.
Fondly reflecting on Philip Henderson’s The Far Pavilions, the composer was in the audience to see Baker deliver a soaring take on Brighter By Far that had been re-arranged for the St James occasion.
As his selection went on to include Makin’ Whoopee, one wished for Baker to make an album of the American Songbook. The man displays a polished understanding of both lyric and presence, par excellence.
Performing solo throughout, there was one exception when director Frances Ruffelle (who had only recently been directed herself by Baker) joined him on stage for Nice from Lucky Stiff, a duet that reprised their 1997 pairing from the Ahrens and Flaherty show.
Maintaining a standard of nothing short of excellent, a medley of Newley greats treated the crowd to Once In A Lifetime, The Candy Man and What Kind of Fool Am I, with Baker also un-earthing Newley’s Pagliacci-esque The Man Who Makes You Laugh. As the singer sat at an onstage make-up table, donning the pierrot’s white slap and garishly rouged lips, the song’s irony was chilling.
Accompanied throughout by Alex Parker’s quintet, the music was perfectly weighted. Parker’s understanding of the subtleties of musical direction is unmatched for one so young – and under his command the evening's musical ambience effortlessly ranged from cocktail lounge intimacy to big band bravado.
Wrapping his set with Taboo’s Petrified, a song that Baker has made his own, a few muffled sobs from the St James crowd evidenced the sensitivity of the moment.
This show is off to New York’s 54 Below later this month and Manhattan is in for a treat. The gig offers moments that are at times reflective, spectacular but most of all and for various reasons, simply spine-tingling. When he returns from the USA, A Bakers Dozen demands a longer London run.