Philip Quast, the sole male in the quartet of singers who make up this year's Divas at the Donmar series, opened Aug. 20.
His program was a very Sondheimish one of modern songs that tell stories and involve an enormous amount of technical skill, acting ability, energy and commitment, but are fairly short on tunes.
For those more into melodies, he threw in "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific (for which he won an Olivier award earlier this year) in an arrangement that paired it with "Hello, Young Lovers" from The King and I.
In the second half he treated the audience to the children's song about the Emperor's New Clothes — "The King Is in the Altogether!" — which, judging by the smiles on the face of the audience, brought back happy memories of a less sophisticated musical stage in people's lives. Interestingly, Quast's press night seemed better attended than either of his two predecessors, Janie Dee and Ruby Turner. Whether this was a reflection of Quast's personal popularity or a sign of the cumulative effect of a very well-reviewed and enjoyable season of Divas is unclear, but this third hit in a row suggests that cabaret is a popular art form.
Whether it can pull in enough people to make it an all-year attraction in a central London venue is another matter, of course. The Green Room at the Cafe Royal had many top-liners in its occasional series of cabarets, but it has not continued as a permanent venue, which leaves Pizza on the Park and, from time to time, Jermyn Street Theatre, as the only well-known venues in central London.
The success of the Divas season at the Donmar may be partly because it is such a short one (four weeks) and in a relatively small (some 250-seat) theatre with a very high (thanks to artistic director Sam Mendes) profile.
The prestige of appearing at and publicity surrounding the Divas at the Donmar means that stars of Quast's caliber are happy to book themselves in for a week in August. Whether they would commit to a stint at a less well-known venue where they are part of a year-round selection of artists rather than one of a few, spotlit, stars in a high-profile summer season is another matter.
Meanwhile, however, we have the Divas to enjoy. Philip Quast is at the Donmar until Aug. 24, and Kristin Chenoweth plays there from Aug. 26-31.
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow