The American Queen Ensemble
The American Queen Steamboat
New Orleans to Memphis, Blues Cruise
The American Queen
Lydia Myers (show captain)
Chris J. Handley
The Steamboat Syncopators
(piano, drums, bass, guitar, saxophone, trumpet, trombone)
The Ford Theatre (set up for Joyce Cobb later)
This is an odd one to review in that they did three shows, and the four singers are basically employees of the cruise, rather than “an act.” However, they worked so hard and did so well, that our enjoyment should be recorded with a review. We marvelled that they could do three totally different shows, with so many songs and such elaborate choreography. They did each show twice (first for late diners before the meal, second for early diners after the meal). There is a touch of the British TV sitcom Hi-de-Hi (which was set among the entertainment staff in an early 60s holiday camp) or Butlins Redcoats (on which Hi-de-Hi is based). Being a holiday camp entertainer was a frequent British step on the way to stardom, as Ringo Starr or Cliff Richard could tell you. Cruises have replaced the holiday camps.
The four members also did panel games (brilliantly) and had to do the Bingo! calling too. They also chatted to passengers in between. When Chris and Lydia did Name That Tune with eighteen extracts from show songs to sing unaccompanied and on the spot we realized how deep their knowledge of show tunes was, and also how incredibly accomplished they had to be to sing them at the drop of a hat. All four did the Liar dictionary definition game with Matthew as quizmaster, and they did it as well or better than the celebrities / comedians do on British TV and radio.
I would guess that all four have extensive stage musical experience. The reason their names are not up in lights on Broadway? Who knows? It’s not a lack of talent or ability. I hope it’s not unfair to say that both the guys, Chris and Matthew have “character” faces, rather than “leading man” faces. They are not conventional leads. I imagine they would be fantastic in comedy, or in character roles … I’m sure their agent has said the same and they know it. Both are quick-witted (see the panel games) with an engaging manner and a gift for comedy. As far as singing goes, they’re as good as any lead, and must know it. So are the girls, both conventionally very good-looking. In their case, I guess it’s just luck. I would be delighted to see all four names in lights one day.
With the benefit of Google, I see that Chris Handley is an award-winning stage musical actor, and was in his third season on the boat, but photos of the ensemble are three different people with him. Lydia is featured from 2012, and has performed at Dollywood, and been nominated as Female Performer of the Year. Matthew has toured in Disney stage productions and his acting background includes non-musical roles.
They did three major shows, backed by the house band. The house band also did a trad jazz session on the deck, and in various combinations played elsewhere, or accompanied the boat’s other entertainers. They also backed The Platters. So these guys had to play trad, soul, show tunes and pop. You can’t be master of all those trades, and clearly you have to read the charts to play that many tunes. The result is that the “Ensemble” of singers came across as better than their backing band. Again, I don’t want to be harsh, but I have done lights on shows where the backing band were drilled by a director in looking committed and enthusiastic. Musicians reading will always tend to look distracted rather than part of the fun and excitement. They were clearly more cheerful playing trad jazz, which removes the need to read. The horn section and guitar player were all a lot older than the piano / bass / drums rhythm section too. The band lacked a certain snap and rhythm, even if playing all the right notes. When Preston Shannon (see elsewhere) played on the Monday between their shows you could really hear the difference: basically, of a band being really into what they’re doing.
The Steamboat Syncopators in midday trad jazz mode, not at the show
But the Ensemble always seemed totally committed.
SATURDAY 7th JUNE
This was a history of blues and soul from New Orleans to Memphis, tracing the path of the boat up the river. Thus we started in New Orleans on the trad jazz area that suited the band. Ol’ Man River was sung deep and low by Chris. It’s a song that got referenced several times in the week’s blues cruise as “early blues” but of course it is a show tune, written by Jerome Kern for Show Boat in 1927. So it is pastiche. When we did our tour to a plantation in Natchez, the singer at the plantation performed both Old Man River and Summertime as examples of songs the slaves might have sung. Well, yes, if slavery had still existed in 1927 and 1935, and Kern and Gershwin were composing for the slaves.
Down By The Riverside another song oft-repeated over the week saw all four change into silvery gospel gowns.
Walkin’ in Memphis introduced the rock section, very much in stage musical style, with Chris walking on with a suitcase and sunglasses for a slowed down version. It broke into Blue Suede Shoes (naturally from “put on my blue suede shows and I boarded the plane”). Later we saw Carl Perkins’ stage blue suede shows in Nashville’s Country Music Museum, and were surprised to see they were dark navy blue, not the bright blue ‘d always imagined. Matthew leapt on in a fiery jacket for Great Balls of Fire but it begged for a bit of fiery piano to match, which we didn’t get. They rolled back into Walkin’ in Memphis with all four singing.
The soul section sounded best of all … having the three horns helped. Anna sang lead on Hold On I’m Coming and Lydia did Carla Thomas’s Gee Whiz. As we saw during the week, she is particularly good on “girl group” material, having a distinctive voice. There is a YouTube extract of her doing it in 2012 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W9Iw6HsplM8) though I think she has improved. The section then had the guys on for Funky Chicken which got us much more into Hi-de-Hi territory with the audience invited to stand and do funky chicken movements. The Goodies’ send up Funky Gibbon came to mind. Cruise ship audiences are not young.
Musicals are their forte and they did an extract from Memphis which I didn’t know, but liked. Proud Mary (another song to reappear in many guises over three weeks) was powerful, with Lydia starting a slowed down take on the song, then Anna rocking it up.
In the end, you had to consider it was a blues cruise show and the only African Americans present in the theatre were clearing tables and bringing drinks. I guess that’s why they call it the blues.
SUNDAY 8th JUNE
This was the Tribute to Broadway show, and as we later saw from their Name That Tune game, this is their home territory. It’s not mine as my stage musical song recognition on Name That Tune was only nine out of eighteen. It is also the show that hoovered up the lion’s share of the costume budget, with frequent changes, and also the show with the hardest choreography. It started with Another Opener Another Show. The next section was eerie for me, as I spent the summer of 1967 shining lime lights down on Frankie Vaughan, who had the British hit with Hello Dolly. Matthew took it, coming down into the audience, something Frankie did too, though he was then so popular it was only a token to the front row. Then Chris followed with Mame, another from the same Frankie Vaughan show.
Picture from Facebook, a couple of months earlier
They each had big songs. Anna did Oklahoma, Chris The Impossible Dream and Lydia Summertime. The West Side Story segment had Matthew doing Maria and Lydia doing Somewhere then they combined to duet.
Matthew did a novelty Kids to great acclaim (though it was new to me). They finished with A Chorus Line.
Commitment direction was still needed for the band; they were playing subtle arrangements well, but still lacked pizzazz or snap. The backing musicians look as if they are doing a job (and well) rather than participating. The four singers and dancers are working their socks off and doing so at top professional levels. I longed to direct the band. When you’re not playing, WATCH THE ACTION in front of you with interest, don’t stare at the next page of music, or sit like a lemon. Fix a smile on your face. Nod in time to the beat. Look enthusiastic! As I say, I’ve seen this sort of direction done in the 60s. It’s the difference in being a pit orchestra, where you can pick your nose or yawn at will, and being lined up directly behind the action on stage.
TUESDAY 10th JUNE
The Baby Boomers Show with pop music from the 50s and 60s. I actually setlisted this one right afterwards:
Through the Years
Tears on my Pillow
My Boyfriend’s Back
So in Love
Chapel of Love
All My Loving
Let It Be
Twist and Shout
You Can’t Hurry Love
I Can’t Help Myself
I Want You Back
Let The Sunshine In
Let’s Dance The Last Dance
The Hi-de-hi aspect of cruise ship entertainers was revealed in the next day programme. After doing this show twice on Tuesday, singing and dancing with full energy, they had to conduct Name That Tune at 9.30 the next morning, and two of them had to call the numbers at Bingo the next lunchtime. But at least the costume changes were fewer than on the other shows.
The strongest songs were the girl group classics: Soldier Boy, My Boyfriend’s Back, Chapel of Love, You Can’t Hurry Love. All great, though I’d have liked to see the dance sequence from The Wanderers for My Boyfriend’s Back.
The intros went somewhat awry on The Beach Boys and The Beatles. Yes, there was a year when The Beach Boys rivaled The Beatles on the British charts, but it was the Sloop John B / I Get Around / Good Viobrations / Heroes and Villains era, not as suggested, with Surfin’ USA and Surfer Girl which were not major British hits. But I bought Surfin’ USA new.The Beatles three mixed up chronology too, but Let It Be really does suit the showtunes style.
The soul sequence carried over from their first show – they do it well because The Temptations (My Girl) and The Four Tops (I Can’t Help Myself) were also vocal groups with practiced dance moves.
The hippie era was illustrated with two songs from Hair, Aquarius and Let The Sunshine In, so show tunes performed in paisley rayon shirts and dresses, and were the least convincing, the wild hippie dancing veering towards comic, though I think the shiny paisley didn’t help. I think it would have been good to play up the comedy aspect, put long wigs with headbands on the guys and give them bongos and leave the hippy gyrating to the girls.
The entire disco era was illustrated with just the one song, which I don’t know – a missed opportunity as this skilled four piece could have done the Bee Gees’ songs superbly and done a touch of Travolta disco dancing, I’m sure.
So three very different shows in a week, and they’re only going to repeat the shows once a week at most. it’s a hard equation to hold, and must rely on considerable practice as well as obvious natural talent.