This show tells the story of famous American jazz musician Chet Baker’s life and death, featuring storytelling by Mike Maran, and live music by Colin Steele and Fraser Urquhart.
moments of magic are few and far between...
The story starts with two people up on stage. One man with a trumpet, the other at the piano. They start right away into the song "My Funny Valentine": the piano perfectly crisp, the trumpet soft. Colin Steele is Chet Baker, and he’s definitely dressed the part, wearing all black, no tie, his hair slicked to the side. He is the spitting image of an aged Chet.
Unfortunately, however, Steele wasn’t consistently fantastic. From the very start, he sounds tired and not entirely warmed-up, although his tone does get better over the course of the show. It’s a disappointment that Steele’s playing often ruins the magic of his role as Baker. In contrast, Fraser Urquhart does an excellent job on piano; he is consistently in tempo, and really shines during the few solo moments that he’s allotted.
The third character on stage, played by Mike Maran, appears after a few moments of playing, jumping right into narrative. With his size and considerable stage presence, he commands the audience’s attention. However, things very quickly go sideways. While Maran is a good enough storyteller, his over-loud delivery continually sucks the intimacy and charm out of the performance. Furthermore, the dynamic between Steele and Urquhart’s playing and Maran’s storytelling often lacks chemistry. The effect is like coming into contact with a mix of velvet and sandpaper.
Often it seems like Maran is trying to shout over music that’s not even that loud – in turn drowning out what little music there was to hear. This, coupled with the fact that Colin Steele is no Chet Baker, results in a performance that’s often completely underwhelming. I found myself constantly wishing that Maran would adopt a more nuanced style of delivery. It seems that he’s only capable of operating in the modes of ‘loud’ or ‘louder’.
Still, there are instances when A Funny Valentine manages to shine, moments that nearly achieve duende, when the music and Maran both turn on a head, stopping and then starting at once, as though different extensions of the same organism. These few moments of almost magical synchronicity, along with several admirably inventive choices (made clear toward the end of the show), could have redeemed the act, but sadly these moments of magic are few and far between.
To be fair, the story is told in a rather inventive way, where we’re shown the gruesome flaws of Chet Baker, both in his life and in his story. Even if you know the story of Baker’s death, you’ll find Maran’s telling interesting. As to the identity of Maran’s character, I doubt you’ll see it coming. Maran tells a fine story, but sadly the conclusion is not as moving as one might hope. If you’re a serious Chet Baker fan, you might be better off going to see his music performed in concert, elsewhere. Also, because of the cramped size of this venue, you might end up with a trumpet, or Mike Maran, blowing right in your face.