The threat of "enemies within, enemies without" is never far away in B A Robertson's lushly melodic chamber musical about John F Kennedy.
Told through the eyes of Danish journalist Inga Arvad, whose relationship with the future President was cut short by his disapproving father, a story of long-lost love unfolds against a swiftly shifting political backdrop.
At the piano, Robertson provides astute and often satirical commentary as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the rise of the civil rights movement and the nuclear arms race grab the headlines.
Married with two kids by the time of JFK's inauguration, Inga kept in touch with her former lover, and the letters provided the starting point for this two-hour tribute to their relationship. Addressing her "honey", Inga teasingly inquires as to how a skinny, sickly kid without a clean shirt to his name managed to become an all-American icon.
The striking Katrine Lunde is a captivating singer, and Robertson has written a collection of beautiful songs that perfectly fit her pure, clear voice. The crash of chords that signals the end of a wistful ballad often feels like it comes frustratingly soon. Occasionally a line is lost in some of the more dense, political numbers, but for the most part Robertson's brilliant wordplay can be savoured.
Short monologues provide updates on time and place between the songs, as do extracts of archive footage. There could be more of these, more smoothly woven into the show. Appropriately, in an extended montage showing JFK's journey from carefree young man to President and father, he frequently appears to be squinting into the camera. (Shona Craven)
Not since the height of the Cold War, 50 years ago, have people in the West been so uneasily aware of the role of the president of the United States as perceived leader of the free world. Love him or hate him, in any conflict between western civilisation and those who would challenge it, the man in the White House is seen by millions as speaking for us. Hence the impotent rage felt by so many at being represented by the image of George W Bush.
And hence, too, the special timely quality and huge potential of BA Robertson's fascinating chamber musical Too Close To The Sun, a study of the brief 1960s presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy that positively aches with contemporary resonances.
First seen during last year's Edinburgh Fringe - and still under development - Too Close to The Sun is perhaps the most ambitious project yet from Robertson, who is probably still best known for his series of chart hits in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Since then, he has carved out a career across the worlds of performance, songwriting, film and album production. Now he has created this passionate two-hour song cycle which traces the three-year story of JFK's presidency mainly from the perspective of Inga Arvad, the beautiful twice-divorced Danish-American who was Kennedy's lover in the 1940s, but was rejected by his family, and eventually discarded in favour of the much younger and wealthier Jackie.
The lovely Katrine Lunde, as Inga, sings a deeply-felt series of ballads about Kennedy's election, about the Cuban missile crisis as seen from her family home in Arizona, about the dangers of his promiscuous private life, and about the enemies gathering round him. Meanwhile, Robertson, at the piano, throws in a few punchy songs from different perspectives, notably those of the many Mafia bosses who had dealings with the Kennedy clan. And behind the two performers, a well-chosen series of contemporary images remind us of the lost world over which JFK presided, a troubling mixture of the unbelievably old-fashioned, and the instantly recognisable.
In terms of presentation, there are difficulties in performing such a complex text - full of richly-argued lyrics - with just two performers, a single piano and absolutely no visual help for the audience in grasping the full sense of the text first time round.
What's undeniable, though, is that Robertson has found a superb subject for a contemporary song cycle, and a wonderful, poignant performer in Lunde. Now they need to sit down with a director who can start whipping the show into shape, tightly focussed on the story of JFK that emerges through Inga's vision - the vision of a woman in love, but too intelligent, in the end, to be easily deceived. (Joyce MacMillan)
Film of John F Kennedy’s inauguration flashes on the screen as he announces, “the torch has been passed to a new generation”. So begins this mini-musical about JFK, which stands in marked contrast to BA Robertson’s previous festival shows, full of banter and the hits of yesteryear.
This time BA and his keyboard are joined by Katrine Lunde. She plays Kennedy’s ex-lover Inga Arvad, a Danish woman who had a relationship with JFK during the Second World War. His life is viewed for her perspective.
Some songs show admiration and affection. Kennedy’s youthful image is compared to that of other world leaders and Arvad shows regret that she’s not part of Camelot.
Other numbers see detractors mocking his shortcomings. Less than flattering school reports are outlined. “Papa Joe” is about the smug father who pulls all the strings. “Bahia De Cochinos”, is a tour de force sneer complete with Latin rhythms about the Bay Of Pigs fiasco. “One Minute To Midnite” has a mock hawk extolling nuclear conflict and castigating Kennedy for not pushing the button during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The CBS news announcement about the assassination appears and Robertson movingly sings “Come Back To Erin”, based on a speech Kennedy made on a visit to Ireland.
The music has echoes of “Evita”, and one wonders whether it is destined for a larger stage. It is excellent, packed with punch pathos and great songs. Robertson and Lunde give superb performances.
As a naval attaché during the Second World war, young Jack Kennedy - as in the 35th President of the USA - had a steamy affair with Inga Arvad.
Billed as a woman with whom the womanising politician was honest, Inga is the subject of BA Robertson’s sublime musical and it’s a fascinating story, even more so when you thought there was no more to be added to the JFK myth.
The Danish platinum blonde was an older woman and suspected of being a spy for the Nazis. Jack’s godfather-like dad Joe attempted to stop the relationship while conversely, secret service chief J Edgar Hoover was happy to stockpile the incriminating evidence for possible blackmail.
Although the relationship inevitably ended, Inga and Jack stayed in contact one way or another until JFK’s fatal appointment by thet rocky knoll in Dallas.
In this one-hour taster the historical background is projected via moody archive footage while the songs and story concentrate o the couple’s time together and Inga’s life and thoughts in the years after their relationship ended.
As Inga, Norwegian Katrine Lunde wrings every emotion from her bell-clear voice, “You don’t love us!”, she laments on behalf of all the women Jack has slept with, while in a more upbeat number she waltzes with the skimpy tennis dress she has been sent to help her integrate into high society. Later she dons a hat and glasses to sing a gruff plea by Joe to get his son back on the fast track to the Presidency.
Robertson - accompanying on electric piano - similarly multi- roles, from the dry drama of the epic opening scene-setter to the mad humour of the salsa-tinged, “Burn Baby Burn” as Castro taunts President Kennedy over the Cuban revolution - “Come on in the water’s red!”
He sardonically delivers a ditty about JFK’s college days, “Bring on the Skinny Kid”, before unexpectedly turning to softer tones, as the song becomes a poignant duet with Inga.
The lyrics are forward and Robertson is unafraid to find poetry in the often harsh language of our modern world - swearing and media soundbites included.
The melodies are subtle but there is always a hook, leaving you pleasantly wanting more. Profane, touching and funny, if Robertson has a deserved eye on Broadway, you can say you saw it here first. (Nick Aude)