Doris Day in Song and on Screen

Northern Irish singer Brigid O'Neill pays tribute to the Hollywood actress, singer and animal rights activist

20 years a movie star (she made 39 films), 60 years a top television and recording artist, and 40 as a committed animal rights activist. Doris Day is, simply, a living legend, a phenomenon of the 20th century entertainment industry.

No wonder, then, that every available seat in the Black Box is taken for Northern Irish singer Brigid O'Neill's tribute to the great American star, the penultimate concert at this year's highly successful Out to Lunch arts festival in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter.

It's a dangerous business, following in the footsteps of an icon. 'Love me or leave me', the opening number, finds O'Neill struggling a little to grip the lower-lying sections of a song that has a problematically wide tessitura. That she's happier in pure soprano territory is immediately confirmed in 'Lullaby of Broadway', where the voice is more mellow and mellifluous.

Some of Day's softly sensual allure is captured in 'I'll Never Stop Loving You', another tricky number, stretching to the maximum O'Neill's ability to float extended notes at pianissimo, a difficult skill technically.

Still photographs of Day and clips from her many movies (with James Cagney, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, et al) punctuate the show, projected on a side-screen. They reveal a somewhat sassier, more assertive persona than that suggested by the yieldingly romantic songs that made Day vocally famous.

At one point Cagney slaps her violently, eliciting an audible intake of breath from the Black Box audience. It probably wouldn't raise an eyebrow in a typical room of mainstream cinema-goers watching a typical Hollywood shock-buster nowadays.

A jazzily laid-back trio of guitar, double bass and electric keyboard supports O'Neill's performance sympathetically. The arrangements are unobtrusively tasteful, and occasionally more than that, in a jaunty take on 'Pillow Talk', complete with twangy Bert Weedon guitar-fills. O'Neill herself is full of useful information about Day's career, which she shares in a relaxed, informal fashion between numbers.

It's Day's music, though, that most of the audience are really here for, and in the second set there's plenty more of it on offer. 'Bewitched' again highlights the creamy timbral qualities of O'Neill's upper register, although the natural bloom of her voice is compromised a little by the Black Box's low ceiling, which dulls and flattens the acoustic.

It can't flatten the impact, though, of O'Neill's touching take on 'Secret Love' from Calamity Jane, which she immediately follows with 'The Deadwood Stage (Whip-Crack-Away!)' from the same movie.

By now the audience is fully hitched to the nostalgia wagon, clapping, finger-clicking and singing along spontaneously, with an impressive recall of lyrics penned decades ago. 'Enjoy yourself (It's Later Than You Think)' and the encore 'Black Hills of Dakota' (another Calamity Jane favourite) are lapped up eagerly, leaving a sell-out crowd reluctant to head home for their Sunday dinner.

O'Neill's gentle, self-effacing personality and sweet vocalism doesn't fit all of these songs perfectly. When the match is right, however, we travel back in time to a (superficially, at least) more gracious, mannerly era, where generous sentiments could be expressed without irony or cynicism, and a simple, undemanding melody could be enjoyed and savoured without condescension.

Every once in a while it does everybody good to make that particular journey, and Brigid O'Neill, on this occasion, proves a particularly genial facilitator. Doris Day revival, anybody?

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