Defying Gravity

Theatre Royal, February 13


Sutton Foster and Aaaron Tveit in Defying Gravity. Photo: Robert Catto


It sounded pretty special on paper but high expectations were far exceeded in Defying Gravity, an electrifying concert featuring the songs of Stephen Schwartz that sent me home walking on air.

Produced by Enda Markey, the show was beautifully crafted in every respect and the love that swelled from the audience was well and truly deserved.

For starters there was the stellar cast: two of Broadway’s hottest stars Sutton Foster and Aaron Tveit, West End star Joanna Ampil, Australia’s own David Harris and Helen Dallimore, as well as Broadway legend Betty Buckley making a guest appearance in the second act. They were all wonderful but Foster and Tveit completely blew me away. The chance to see them on the Sydney stage was a gift.

The meaty program was extremely well put-together featuring songs both very well known and less familiar including numbers from Schwartz’s musicals Pippin, Godspell, The Magic Show, Children of Eden, The Baker’s Wife and, of course, Wicked, along with numbers from Disney animated films such as Pocahontas, Enchanted and The Hunchback of Notre Dame on which he collaborated as lyricist with composer Alan Menken.

There was a good mixture of solos, duets and group numbers and lovely changes of pace from roof-raising numbers performed with the magnificent 15-piece band under conductor Guy Simpson to moments of quiet restraint such as Foster’s spellbinding rendition of When You Believe from The Prince of Egypt with solo guitar (Daniel Maher) and Cold Enough to Snow from the movie Life With Mikey movingly sung by Tveit accompanied on piano by Michael Tyack.

The choice of songs clearly illustrated Schwartz’s skill as a songwriter: a fine lyricist able to tell a story succinctly in song and convey a strong sense of character, emotion and empathy, as well as a catchy tunesmith.

Trent Suidgeest’s stage design was simple but had enough sparkle for the occasion with hanging strings of silver flakes as well as silver dusting the stage. Smoothly directed by Andrew Pole, the choreography of the performers on and off stage (as well as in several songs) was deft, as was their linking material, while the inclusion of comments from Schwartz on screen added insight to his career and process including his songwriting mantra: “Just tell the truth and make it rhyme”.

It was fascinating to see how the number The Wizard and I from Wicked gradually evolved from a song initially entitled Making Good.

The band was excellent and the sound was terrific (System Sound, Julian Spink and David Tonion).

Defying Gravity: The Songs Of Stephen Schwartz

David Harris, Helen Dallimore, Stephen Schwartz, Aaron Tveit, Betty Buckley, Sutton Foster and Joanna Ampil in Defying Gravity. Photo: Robert Catto

And then there were the performers. Sutton Foster, whose many Broadway credits include Millie Dilmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Broadway starlet Janet van de Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone, Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes and the title role in Violet, has a voice to die for: bright, clear, silvery and soaring. She can belt to the heavens as she showed with Defying Gravity, which had the audience on their feet screaming, or rein it right back in heartbreaking fashion as with I’m Not That Girl.

Tveit was also sensational. Star of Broadway shows Catch Me If You Can and Next to Normal, he played Enjolras in the 2012 movie of Les Miserables and Danny Zuko in the recent Fox Grease: Live. His lovely, light tenor soars effortlessly, he charms with a cheeky smile and twinkle in the eye, and he has a great sense of comedy. He knocked it out of the park with Proud Lady from The Baker’s Wife and hammed it up delightfully in All From the Best from Godspell with David Harris.

Harris was also in fine voice. Known here for his performances in shows including Miss Saigon and Legally Blonde, he is now based in New York. Exuding a natural ease on stage, he gave a beautiful rendition of Corner of the Sky from Pippin and got a huge response from the audience with the sexy duet Endless Delights, performed with Helen Dallimore.

Dallimore, who originated the role of Glinda in the London production of Wicked and whose credits in Australia include Blood Brothers and Legally Blonde, showed her comic chops with Endless Delights, Popular from Wicked and It’s An Art, a song by a waitress from the musical Working.

Joanna Ampil, who has a lovely soprano voice, charmed with songs including Lion Tamer from The Magic Show, That’s How You Know from Enchanted and, most particularly, Colours of the Wind from Pocahontas.

Betty Buckley performed three songs in the second act: No Time At All from Pippin, in which she starred for several years, as well as Chanson and the gorgeous Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife, bringing the audience to their feet. Schwartz actually wrote The Baker’s Wife with Buckley in mind but despite six auditions she didn’t land the role – a disappointment so devastating it consumed her for years as she explains with wry humour.

The show ended with Schwartz taking to the stage to perform Day By Day with the full company – an uplifting and touching end to an incredibly special event, which once again had the audience on their feet.

Earlier in the day, I saw Schwartz in conversation with Leigh Sales, a terrific interview about his career and craft, which only added to my appreciation of the concert.

All in all, a big thanks to Enda Markey for producing Defying Gravity. It was a little slice of musical theatre heaven. Pure bliss!

Sutton Foster Defies Gravity in Sydney

Sutton Foster discusses coming to Sydney for the Stephen Schwartz concert Defying Gravity, the scars she drew on for her Tony Award-nominated performance in Violet, musicals Hamilton and Fun Home, dream roles and playing younger in Younger


Broadway star Sutton Foster. Photo: Laura Marie Duncan


When producer Enda Markey approached Broadway star Sutton Foster about performing in Sydney, his timing couldn’t have been better. Foster had just agreed to teach musical theatre masterclasses at a summer school in New Zealand.

“So basically the reason I’m going (to Sydney) is because I was already going to be here,” she says on the phone from Christchurch. “I’ve never been to Australia and I’m so super-excited.”

The two-time Tony Award winner (for her performances as Millie Dilmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002 and Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes in 2011) will headline a concert called Defying Gravity, featuring the songs of composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz whose credits include the musicals Wicked, Godspell and Pippin among others, as well as lyrics for the Disney films Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted.

The impressive line-up also features Broadway legend Betty Buckley (Sunset Boulevard), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras in the 2012 Les Miserables movie and Danny Zuko in Fox’s Grease Live), West End star Joanna Ampil (Miss Saigon) and Australians David Harris (Miss Saigon, Legally Blonde) and Helen Dallimore (Legally Blonde, Glinda in the West End production of Wicked).

“Aaron and I have never worked together, we just know each other through the business, the same with Betty. We know each other through mutual friends so I’m looking forward to working with both of them on this,” says Foster.

Schwartz meanwhile is a good friend but Foster has never been in one of his shows, though she has performed songs of his including Defying Gravity in concert. “I’ve worked on some of his material but some of the songs that I’m going to be singing are songs I’ve never sung before so it’s brand new material (for me) so I’m super-excited. I’ve been working on the material while I’ve been here in Christchurch. I’ve been looking back into his catalogue and it’s really exciting,” she says.

Schwartz will attend the three concerts at Sydney’s Theatre Royal this Friday and Saturday and also do an onstage “in conversation” interview with Leigh Sales at midday on Saturday.

“That adds another level of pressure,” says Foster with a laugh, “but it will be fun to have him there. I think it’s going to be a great evening.”

Performing in concert is “a different sort of expression” to performing in a musical, says Foster.

“I don’t have to paint myself green! And you are allowed to take songs a little out of context and personalise things a little bit, which I enjoy. As an audience member, you hope to see a little bit of the character but you also get to learn a little bit about me as well, hopefully. I can bring a little bit more of myself to the songs. I try to do that anyway but in a concert setting I like to take things a little bit out of the expected from what you might see on stage.”

Sutton Foster - photo credit Laura Marie Duncan

Sutton Foster. Photo: Laura Marie Duncan

Foster was born in Statesboro, Georgia and raised in Troy, Michigan. She began dance classes at age four and at ten was “dragged” (as she has put it in previous interviews) by her mother to audition for a local production of Annie, landing the title role.

She made her Broadway debut as an understudy for Sandy in Grease in 1996. Her big break came in one of those fabulous showbiz twists of fate. Offered a role in Les Misérables on Broadway (she had been understudying Eponine) or an ensemble track in a new musical adapted from the 1967 movie Thoroughly Modern Millie, she chose the latter in which she would also understudy the title role of Millie Dilmount.

When the show was struggling during its try-out season at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, Foster was plucked from the ensemble to replace the leading lady. She subsequently played the role on Broadway, won a Tony Award and a star was born.

Foster has now performed in 11 Broadway shows, won two Tonys and also received Tony nominations for her performances as Jo March in Little Women, Broadway starlet Janet van de Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone, Princess Fiona in Shrek The Musical and, most recently in 2014, the title role in Violet.

The New York Times described her portrayal of Violet as “a career-defining performance”.

Known for her bright, silvery voice, her sunny smile, her goofy comic skills and red-hot tap dancing, Violet showed a different side of Foster.

Written by composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Shrek The Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie) and writer Brian Crawley, Violet is based on a short story by Doris Bett called The Ugliest Pilgrim about a young woman who takes a Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma, hoping that a televangelist can heal a disfiguring scar on her face, gained 12 years earlier when the blade flew from her father’s axe.

“It was definitely the most emotional thing I’ve ever done and the most vulnerable and exposed character I’ve ever played,” says Foster.

“It’s fascinating to see friends and colleagues and audience members who would come backstage who were so moved by it. Everyone can relate to her story. We all have scars: some you can see, some you can’t. I related to her. I don’t have physical scars but I definitely have scars from my upbringing and (the show is about) how we overcome them and how we learn to love ourselves scars and all. The show for me became incredibly healing. I was able to overcome personal things – that’s when theatre and the arts is at its best when it can change you. I felt changed by playing that character.”

While not wanting to go into too much detail, Foster says: “I had a rough relationship with my mom. It was hard and it was something I had to face as an adult and something that I needed to come to terms with and forgive her. It’s all complicated. In a weird way with Violet, her father hits her with an axe and it’s pretty cut and dry – he doesn’t do it on purpose, it was an accident.

“My mom only knew what she knew. She did the best she could raising my brother (performer Hunter Foster) and I, and we all had to come to terms with it and allowing it to be OK. I always joke it’s a bottle of bourbon and a whole day to go into all the details of it but all that stuff was very useful (in playing the role).”

(In 2014, Foster told The Los Angeles Times: “For a long time, my career and what I wanted to be as an actor was fueled by her – to please her and make her proud of me.”)

Foster may just be being polite but she sounds genuinely thrilled to hear that Sydney audiences recently had the chance to see a small-scale production of Violet because performer Samantha Dodemaide was so blown away by the show and Foster’s performance in it when she saw it on Broadway that she returned to Australia wanting to play the role.

The production, by Blue Saint Productions in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, played at the Hayes in December and won Best Independent Production of a Musical at the 2015 Sydney Theatre Awards. It now has a season at Melbourne’s Chapel Off Chapel (March 3 – 20).

Asked about the buzz that Hamilton – Lin Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about Founding American Father Alexander Hamilton featuring a racially diverse cast – is generating on Broadway, Foster says: “It’s worthy of all the buzz. I’ve seen it twice. I saw it off-Broadway before it opened and then I saw it right before it opened on Broadway and it’s exciting. It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve seen for a long time.

“I will say personally that two of the most exciting pieces of music that I’ve experienced are running simultaneously, which are Fun Home – which won the Tony Award last year – and Hamilton. I think they are both groundbreakers.”

(Fun Home is a musical adaptation by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori of Alison Bechdel’s memoir about a young lesbian woman discovering her sexuality, and about her relationship with her gay father).

“There’s a song in Hamilton about how lucky we are to be alive right now and I feel that way about how lucky I am to be alive right now when so many exciting things are happening in musical theatre: exciting voices and risks, which are groundbreaking (in terms of) race and sexuality, really making statements that I think are so important. It’s really awesome,” says Foster.

As for dream roles, she says: “I’m a huge fan of new work so I would say that hopefully the dream role hasn’t even been written yet. But there are certain iconic roles. Some day I’d love to play Mama Rose in Gypsy. It doesn’t matter where it is, it doesn’t have to be on Broadway, it could be anywhere, it’s just a role I’d love to do. Also, Charity in Sweet Charity or the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods. Those are probably my top three, I guess.”

In recent years, Foster has made a move into television appearing in Bunheads and now the US series Younger, in which she plays a 40-year old single mother, desperate for work, who pretends to be 26 in order to land a job with a publisher. She begins shooting series three in June.

“It’s a really nice change of pace,” she says of working in television. “I’ve been amazingly lucky – I say that as I knock on wood – to have worked in the theatre for 23 years, which is awesome. It’s all I ever wanted to do. So to learn something new and explore a whole new way of communicating and telling stories, and learning how to be on a television set as an older person – I’ll be 41 in March – is exciting. To be in the midst of my life and trying new things is exciting.”

Foster herself is married to screenwriter Ted Griffin (Ocean’s Eleven) having previously been married to Christian Borle (Smash, Something Rotten!).

Asked how she feels about aging, she says she hadn’t really thought about it until doing press for Younger when everyone asked her about it.

“I completely understand because the show is about ageism and navigating that in the work place. Being a performer I haven’t experienced that yet. Maybe that will happen but I feel more content and happier now than I’ve ever been. I’ve no desire to go backwards. I’m very much looking forward to what’s ahead.”

So no botox or plastic surgery? “Never say never but I guess I feel right now I want to age gracefully and naturally. I’m a pretty natural gal so I can’t imagine (it). I don’t like the idea of anything fake. I try to live a pretty authentic life and I think that goes for my face as well. So for now, I’m embracing the wrinkles and everything else that’s happening and hopefully I can remain youthful from within.”

Defying Gravity, Theatre Royal, February 12 at 8pm & February 13 at 3pm and 8pm. Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100

 A version of this story appeared in the Daily Telegraph on February 11

Josh Pyke makes his orchestral debut: interview

Performing live with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is a dream come true for Australian indie musician Josh Pyke.

Josh Pyke. Photo: supplied

Josh Pyke. Photo: supplied

“Hearing intimate music that’s been played out in your head in your bedroom, with a vast orchestral sound behind it is something that’s been a dream of mine for a long time – well before I had any reason to think that it might happen.

“I’m extremely excited and very nervous as well. I think it’s going to be a pretty wild experience for me,” says the ARIA Award-winning singer-songwriter.

Pyke selected the songs with input from his fans: “I posted something on Facebook and said, ‘what would you like to hear?’

“We did a poll and I was really pleased to see that some of the most popular ones were actually B-sides and album tracks, they weren’t necessarily the singles. That was kind of what I was hoping. I didn’t want to just do Make You Happy and Middle of the Hill. I love those songs but in an orchestral context I was wanting to push the limits of the audience as well as the songs,” says Pyke.

“There are some singles but there are also some glaring omissions. Make You Happy isn’t there or No One Wants a Lover: those songs, which were more like big pop songs. I’m sure there would have been a way to make them work but I wanted to hear songs like Fill You In, which is one of my favourite tracks, definitely one I feel emotionally connected to.”

The SSO commissioned 10 emerging composers from across Australia to orchestrate the music, with Pyke discussing each song with them but giving them a free rein to interpret the material pretty much as they wanted.

The Lighthouse Song, which is quite a laid-back folk song, has taken on a slightly more Sufjan Stevens, joyous feel, which is interesting. Memories & Dust, which is kind of upbeat on the record, has taken on a more melancholy vibe,” he says.

“I really subscribe to the idea that a recorded version of a song is just a specific moment in time. After years and years of playing the songs live, they take on a different life. And I don’t listen to my records. The version of my own songs that I have in my head is actually pretty different to the recorded version.

“When I play them live with the band they take on a life of their own and when I play them solo they change dramatically so I really wanted the arrangers and composers to take their own kind of attitude towards it. The songs are a framework; not necessarily something rigid.”

Perth-based composer Lachlan Skipworth was excited to be offered the opportunity to orchestrate Leeward Side for the concert.

“I love his music. For me, I wanted to be faithful to the original song,” says Skipworth.

“It’s got this relentless rhythm that keeps driving forward through the whole song. At the same time, it’s a quietly melancholy song. I took a model from Ravel’s Bolero, (which) is kind of the same thing.

“I have underpinned the song with two snare drums – except for one bit where Josh and I decided to make a change from the recorded version and slow it down.”

“It’s been a really interesting process,” says Pyke. “Some of the songs have remained fairly faithful to the original and some of them have diverged pretty dramatically. But I feel like every arrangement has served the song.”

Josh Pyke Live with the SSO, SOH, April 29 & 30. or 02 9250 7777

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 19


Bernadette Peters in Concert

Theatre Royal, April 2

Bernadette Peters performing in Sydney. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bernadette Peters performing in Sydney. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bernadette Peters is Broadway royalty – and she showed why with this thrilling concert at the start of her Australian tour.

Peters is now 66 but – as we’ve been saying for years – she looks decades younger. In a sparkly, figure-hugging, lavender gown split up the front, her face framed by those trademark russet curls, she looked a million dollars and has a scintillating stage presence to match.

Her distinctive voice, which moves from a gorgeous husky rasp to soaring, bell-like clarity, is also in great shape. Keeping her patter fairly tight, she let the songs do most of the talking, while still maintaining a warm rapport with the audience.

Accompanied by an 11-piece orchestra led by longtime musical director Marvin Laird, she opened with a somewhat tentative version of “Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy but with her second number, “No One Is Alone” from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, she took flight, undoing us emotionally in an instant.

As one of Sondheim’s foremost interpreters, her career has been closely associated with his so it wasn’t surprising that his music dominated the night, with numbers that she has performed in his shows, and others that she hasn’t.

Not that it was all Sondheim by any means. She gave us a handful of songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein: a playful, sassy version of “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” that showed off her sure sense of comedy and a beautiful rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening” both from South Pacific, as well as a cute “(When I Marry) Mr Snow” from Carousel.

Non-Broadway material included an amusingly sexy version of “Fever”, sung draped over the piano, which she has added to her repertoire relatively recently (“it’s my first time, so please be gentle with me”) and Disney’s “When You Wish Upon A Star”.

But it was with the Sondheim that she really shone in numbers including “Being Alive” and “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company, “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd, “With So Little To Be Sure Of” from Anyone Can Whistle and “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods.

The highlights for me (though I loved it all) were heart-stopping renditions of Sally’s two numbers, “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind”, from Follies, the last Broadway show she did in 2011. She also sang a moving version of “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, which she performed when she played Desiree in the 2010 Broadway revival. It’s a song that rarely has the same impact when performed out of context but Peters brought it to fresh life.

What makes Peters so incredibly special is the way she tells a story with a song, connecting to each and every word so truthfully that it sends shivers down the spine. Sondheim’s inspired lyrics and haunting melodies seem to shimmer with extra emotion in her caressing care. Performing these three numbers in character, she broke your heart without overplaying them in any way.

She ended the night with two Peter Allen songs, “If You Were Wondering” and “I Honestly Love You” and a lullaby she wrote herself called “Kramer’s Song” to go with a children’s book she penned about her dog. As a composer/lyricist she’s no Sondheim but it was a sweet, heartfelt way to end a magical night.

Peters is Broadway royalty for a reason. Anyone who loves musical theatre should try to catch her while she’s here.

Scroll down to read my interview with Bernadette Peters about the concert tour

Bernadette Peters in Concert: Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 2 – 4, bookings or 136 100; Jupiters Hotel & Casino, Gold Coast, April 5, bookings or 132 849; Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne April 7 – 8, bookings

Bernadette Peters interview

Bernadette Peters. Photo: supplied

Bernadette Peters. Photo: supplied

You might imagine that having originated the role of the Witch quite brilliantly in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods on Broadway, Bernadette Peters might be at least just a teensy bit miffed that Meryl Streep has been cast in the 2014 film.

But if she is disappointed Peters isn’t showing it. “I didn’t ever think I was going to be cast,” she says.

“It’s a funny feeling. I actually feel proud that my role is being done by Meryl Streep. She’s great. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. If it’s not me, it might as well be one of the best actresses there are.”

One of Broadway’s brightest stars, it’s hard to believe that Peters has just turned 66, so fabulous is she looking. In fact, she never seems to age. Her unmistakable voice at the end of the phone from New York also sounds as warm, youthful and excitable as ever.

“We have really good genes in our family,” she says. “We all look pretty good. I’m Italian (born in New York). I take good care to exercise and I eat really healthy.”

A performer since childhood, Peters’ credits range from musicals including Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun, Song and Dance, and Sunday in the Park With George to TV shows like Smash, Will & Grace and Ugly Betty.

In 2011, she played the melancholic Sally in the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s Follies – her 15th show on the Great White Way. This followed A Little Night Music in 2010 in which she took over the role of Desiree from Catherine Zeta-Jones at Sondheim’s suggestion.

In recent years, she has also become a regular on the concert stage and tours Australia in April with her latest concert show. Such has been the demand for tickets that she has added a third performance in Sydney.

It’s her third trip Down Under. “The thing about Australia and why I love coming is they are the most wonderful audiences (and) the most appreciative. They are ready for it and I want to give them my all,” she says.

“I love concerts because I’m the boss. I get to choose what I want to sing. There’s no fourth wall (between me and the audience). I’m not one character (as in a musical), though I’m doing two songs from Follies – that’s the last show I did on Broadway – and those I’ll probably do in character.”

She will also sing “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music – a song she has vowed in the past she would never perform in concert. Since appearing in the musical, however, she has changed her mind.

“I was in a revival of A Little Night Music and I thought, ‘I’m never going to sing that song again (elsewhere). It’s perfect where it is in the show. It’s written for it.’ And then I had to sing something special for Steve and I thought, ‘you know what, now that I have all this information about the song, I’ll do it,'” she says.

Happy with how it went, it will be one of several Sondheim numbers on her song list for Australia along with some Rodgers and Hammerstein.

“I guess it’s predominantly Broadway songs but there are all kinds,” she says. “I’ll also sing “When You Wish Upon a Star”, which is a beautiful song. I sing Peggy Lee’s “Fever” lying on the piano and I’m doing some Peter Allen.

“I loved him. We did a summer tour together (in 1989). He was so lovely and kind. You could see on stage what a giving performer he was and that’s what he was like in person.”

Peters has been performing for over 60 years now. “The thing about this job is it’s always changing,” she says. “Every time there is a new project or a new show it’s different and you keep learning and wanting to learn. How do I get to the reality of this character? How truthful can I make it? That’s what drives me: to keep learning and sharing.”

Asked about her career highlights she nominates Mama Rose, the mother of all stage mothers in Gypsy.

“That’s an amazing role. It’s like the King Lear of musical comedy for women. I love a great role where you can keep playing it night after night and get deeper and deeper into it and find out more and more. I’m very fortunate to have had (several) roles like that: Dot in Sunday in the Park With George, Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun and Desiree in A Little Night Music. That’s a fabulous role.”

Sondheim, who wrote many of the shows dearest to her, has played a major part in her career and is now a friend.

He has said of Peters, “Bernadette is flawless as far as I’m concerned” – and the admiration is mutual.

“I thank him all the time for giving me things to sing about,” she says. “In my show I sing a lot of Sondheim because he writes about real things, interesting and important things. The sentiments in some of the songs (are something) I like to remind myself about: “No One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen” (from Into the Woods), “With So Little To Be Sure Of” (from Anyone Can Whistle).

“The great thing is he’s there to ask him a question. It’s like having Shakespeare there and saying, ‘now what did you mean?’ It is a great gift.”

Bernadette Peters in Concert: Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 2 – 4, bookings or 136 100; Jupiters Hotel & Casino, Gold Coast, April 5, bookings or 132 849; Her Majesty’s Theatre, April 7 – 8, bookings

A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on March 16

Kristin Chenoweth & Idina Menzel reviews

Kristin Chenoweth in Concert

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, June 17

Idina Menzel with the Sydney Symphony

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, June 27

The opportunity to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel perform at the Sydney Opera House just 10 days apart was heaven on a stick for Sydney musical theatre lovers – particularly fans of Wicked, some of whom doubtless saw the pair co-star in the Broadway production; Chenoweth as the bubbly good witch Glinda and Menzel as the green-skinned Elphaba.

They both seemed genuinely thrilled to be performing at the world famous venue – and the adoring audience returned their enthusiasm tenfold, giving each a sustained standing ovation, while Chenoweth was also met with one.

Both divas are blessed with an amazing set of pipes and gave “epic” concerts, as my plus-one put it, that required a huge, powerhouse sing. But never having seen either of them live before, it was fascinating to compare their different styles.

Kristin Chenoweth

Kristin Chenoweth

The petite Chenoweth – all 4’11” of her  – is vivaciousness personified, exuding megawatts of gleaming Broadway pizzazz.

The evening began with a montage of images from across her starry career on a huge screen hanging over the stage. Changing outfits twice, her mike stand was blinged-up in the second act to match her sparkling high heels, radiant smile and sassy, shiny stage presence.

Backed by her long-time friend and musical director Mary-Mitchell Campbell and an 11-piece band, Chenoweth’s clarion-clear voice is a remarkable instrument: equally powerful right across her entire register and across genres from country and gospel to Broadway and disco.

The audience went berserk when she sang Popular from Wicked, which she had fun with by singing sections in German and Japanese, while her renditions of Bring Him Home from Les Misérables and Kander and Ebb’s My Colouring Book were spine-tingling.

During her Australian concerts, Chenoweth has been inviting an audience member to sing For Good with her; in Sydney, that honour went to Australia’s own Glinda Lucy Durack, with Chenoweth taking Elphaba’s part.

It was clear Durack was totally taken by surprised and hadn’t rehearsed the number. “I’ve lived my whole life as a B grade version of you,” she said. But though obviously overwhelmed, she kept it together in one of the most touching moments of the concert.

Besides musical theatre numbers, Chenoweth did a tribute to Dolly Parton, an 1845 anthem Hard Times Come Again No More by Stephen Foster and a gospel number, quipping: “If you believe in Jesus, this is for you; if not it’s only four minutes….. Shalom!”

She talked about her faith as a Christian – albeit a controversial one given her support for same-sex marriage – and her charity work. At one point she showed us a sweet, personal video she sent to her father on Father’s Day and gave us a glimpse into her shoe closet, which rivals Imelda Marcos’s.

At times, the tone became a little sentimental and schmaltzy in that all-American way. Her three back-up singers, who occasionally dueted with her, seemed somewhat inexperienced and an Avenue Q skit sat oddly.

But no matter. Chenoweth’s enthusiasm is infectious and endearing, she’s very funny, and her voice is glorious. The audience couldn’t have loved her more if they tried and left exhilarated.

Idina Menzel. Photo by Robin Wong.

Idina Menzel. Photo by Robin Wong.

Menzel was more low-key, laid-back and earthy but no less winning. Barefoot and wearing a long, lacy, slightly boho black dress tied at the waist, she stalked the stage as she chatted to the audience. A Jewish girl from Queens, New York who began her career singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs, she displayed a dry sense of humour and an occasional potty-mouth.

She is clearly blissed out to be a mother to her young son with husband Taye Diggs, who she met when they performed together in Rent (in which she created the role of Maureen). Motherhood, she said, has allowed her to tap into greater depths of emotion.

Performing with the Sydney Symphony, conducted by Vanessa Scammell, and several American musicians she had brought with her, Menzel appeared to the strains of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which quickly morphed into The Wizard and I – to a roar of approval from the audience.

As at Chenoweth’s concert, the musical theatre numbers got the biggest response from the audience, among them Don’t Rain on My Parade and a beautiful rendition of Somewhere – her “favourite song ever”.

She gave moving tributes to Marvin Hamlisch, who became a close friend of hers, singing At the Ballet and What I Did for Love from A Chorus Line, and also Jonathan Larson who died just before the first preview of Rent.

Four lucky audience members got to sing Take Me Or Leave Me with her – including a little girl, aged around five, whose mother put her up for it. Menzel dealt kindly with the child and invited them to go backstage afterwards.

Other numbers included a moving rendition of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, an effective mash-up of Cole Porter’s Love for Sale and Sting’s Roxanne and Lady Gaga’s Poker Face – the first number she did on Glee – commiserating tongue-in-cheek with the musicians of the orchestra for having to perform such fare.

Though performing with a symphony orchestra, the evening felt surprisingly intimate.

She had the audience holding their collective breath when she ended the concert with an acappella version of For Good, then wrapped things up with the obligatory Defying Gravity.

It may not be the best she’s ever sung it (she had been coughing a little, drinking lots of water and sucked a lozenge at one point) but it was still amazing.

Once again, the audience left on a high. While Chenoweth delivers pizzazz in spades, Menzel perhaps taps into the heart a little more. But both were stunning. Heaven.