Review: 'He Wrote Good Songs' at Seven Angels Theatre

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • Connecticut Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

“I hope that ‘He Wrote Good Songs’ reminds you or introduces you to the work of a man who gave a great deal to the world of music.” - Semina De Laurentis 

Waterbury, CT - Jon Peterson returns to Seven Angels Theatre for the Connecticut premiere of his one-man show, a musical he wrote about the life of Anthony Newley aptly entitled ‘He Wrote Good Songs.’ This talented actor previously appeared in ‘George M. Cohan Tonight’ and ‘Song Man Dance Man’ on the Seven Angels stage. Artistic Director Semina De Laurentis was clearly thrilled to welcome him back to Waterbury for a full-scale production of this new musical that tells the life story of the British actor, singer and songwriter with twenty of Mr. Newley’s iconic songs propelling the turbulent tale. 

I remembered the voice of this actor from the movie soundtrack of the first ‘Doctor Dolittle’ but I had no idea that with his writing partner Leslie Bricusse he composed such hits as “Goldfinger,” “Who Can I Turn To?” “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and even “Candyman” for the 1971 film ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “Beautiful Things” and the sweeping “After Today” are the songs I recognized from ‘Doctor Dolittle,’ and there were also familiar songs from his shows ‘The Roar of the Greasepaint..The Smell of the Crowd’ and ‘Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.’

In this musical conceived and written by Mr. Peterson, we learn that Mr. Newley came from humble beginnings in London but his larger-than-life musical talent propelled him to fame. There were many highs and lows in his life, a long string of women resulting in several pregnancies, a marriage to Joan Collins (who knew?) but always the music. We learned that at the beginning of his career he worked with Petula Clark, that virtually all of the animals actually bit Rex Harrison during the filming of ‘Doctor Dolittle,’ and other backstage tidbits. After it all, we hear that Mr. Newley passed away in 1899 at the age of 18 and that he only wanted to be remembered for the sentiment in the title of this show. 

It is fair to say that Jon Peterson embodies Anthony Newley in every way. He resembles him only a bit but he gesticulates just like him, and he sounds so much like him that it is almost scary. It truly is a tour-de-force performance of a very talented actor who does not stop moving throughout the two acts. He nails the emotional aspects of the actor’s life and he sings every one of the composer’s songs sounding more like Newley than perhaps even Newley. 

‘He Wrote Good Songs’ was originally produced at the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival where is was directed by Gwen Hillier. Ms. De Laurentis directed this production with a good attention to detail and Bruce Barnes served well as the musical director. The vocal arrangements and orchestrations were done by Mr. Barnes and Mr. Peterson and the latter wrote one new song entitled “In London” for the first act. Musicians included Louis Tucci on bass and guitar, Mark Ryan on percussion and Mr. Barnes on piano while conducting. The director called them a three piece group that sound like twenty (an exaggeration, of course) but they never overpowered the powerful voice of the singer in his best Newley voice. 

Daniel Husvar worked his magic on the scenic design as well as the props; the setting moved from London to New York to Connecticut to Las Vegas to Florida seamlessly. Scott Cally designed the fine lighting and Matt Martin’s sound design was flawless as always. 

I always enjoy a production that presents the story of the life of a celebrity, warts and all, and this one does that very well. However, theatergoers do not necessarily have to remember Anthony Newley to appreciate this impressive production. ‘He Wrote Good Songs’ runs Thursday through Sunday through Nov. 27 at Seven Angels with no show on Thanksgiving. 

Pictured: Jon Peterson as Anthony Newley in 'He Wrote Good Songs' Photo by Paul Roth