The somewhat generic title of her recent show at the Metropolitan Room, “An English Girl in New York,” doesn’t begin to describe the theme of the evening, nor the breadth of Melinda Hughes’s talents. If anything, it read as if we might be hearing about a naïve young Dover sole out of water. Far from it. The show primarily offered witty satirical songs co-written by Hughes and Jeremy Limb, and equally witty patter with which to elucidate them. But her set also included just enough selections by others to display her classical training and penchant for jazz cabaret, not to mention her Noël Coward influences.
She began with a clever song title, “Britannia Waives the Rules” (with additional lyrics by Lloyd Evans), for an evergreen topic: the differences between American and British language and customs. She followed this with another subject familiar to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic—divas; in “Je Veux Diva,” she explained that to become one, you had to “be obsessed with yourself and make people wait.” This led to a highly amusing tale of her three-month tour singing Madame Butterfly across the United States, including a stop at an Anaheim motel, “where the dulcet tones of a gospel choir were occasionally interrupted by the noise of gunshots.”
The daughter of director Ken Hughes, as a child in Los Angeles Melinda got a close look at the movie colony, and she is still fascinated by some of its expatriates. We got to laugh along with her at “Big in LA,” the saga of B-, C-, and D-list British actors who attempt to crash Hollywood in the wake of their DBE and KBE betters, to collect some of those big American movie and TV bucks—and then don’t make it. Back home in Britain, she compared certain weekend getaways in our two countries: “You have the Hamptons, we have Hampshire. You have Martha’s Vineyard, we have Fawlty Towers.” The song that came out of this observation, “Country Estate” skewers her homeland’s “crumbling country piles,” but also borrows, perhaps unconsciously, a lyric line from Cole Porter’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” from High Society: “a country estate is something I’d hate.”
The environmentalist hypocrisy lambasted in “Carbon Footprints in My Jimmy Choos” is cross-culturally self-explanatory. But Hughes didn’t filter out such arcane-to-Americans topics as the wave of recent French émigrés in South Kensington fleeing from François Hollande’s tax laws. Even Brexit, the United Kingdom’s upcoming plebiscite on leaving the European Community, may be more of, as her song has it, “A Foreign Affair.” (Actually that title led into her discussion of life in London with her French boyfriend.) While all her songs didn’t appear to have been adapted to a specifically New York or American audience, some of her patter seemed to have been, with some topical Trump-bashing at the fore.
Now, about those lovely outliers. Hughes sang as jazzy a version of the Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day (in London Town)” as Ella ever did, which had the added benefit of allowing her solid trio to really swing out: musical director and pianist David Shenton, Mark Wade on bass, and Larry Lelli on drums. She paired this number with an equally effective “Waterloo Sunset” (Ray Davies) like you never heard from The Kinks, who introduced it, or David Bowie, who covered it. To underline the compliment of being compared to Coward, she delivered a nifty version of his “I Went to a Marvelous Party.” Her encore, going all the way back to her musical roots, was a soaring Yum-Yum aria, “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado.
“An English Girl in New York”
Metropolitan Room – April 12
About the Author
Robert Windeler is the author of 18 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.