I didn’t attend Defying Gravity with the intention to review. I’d bought my ticket like everyone else and was there just to enjoy the performances. However, sometimes a show is so good, you feel it would be wrong not to write up a review. Defying Gravity: The Songs of Stephen Schwartz was one of those events.
When producer Enda Markey announced the world premiere of Defying Gravity: The Songs of Stephen Schwartz he made it clear this would be a Sydney-only event. He also made it very clear this concert would be worth the trip to Sydney. Flights, accommodation and the cost of a ticket made for a very expensive event for many audience members, with people flying from interstate and overseas. Thankfully, Enda Markey delivered on his promise – it was indeed worth it … and how!
The cast was the main attraction. Somehow, Markey managed to bring together six internationally acclaimed performers, as well as the Academy and Grammy award winning composer, to be in the same place to perform together. One can only imagine that this was no easy feat. The opportunity to see Sutton Foster, Aaron Tveit, Joanna Ampil, Helen Dallimore, David Harris and “the voice of Broadway” Betty Buckley all in the same concert was just too enticing for many musical theatre lovers.
Markey had a performer for everyone. Glancing around the audience, it was clear this was not your usual older person theatre demographic but, rather, a very broad cross section of ages. From the start, there was an incredible sense of anticipation amongst the audience and the moment each performer appeared on stage the audience erupted into thunderous applause. I was sitting behind a group of young girls who had come to see one person: Sutton Foster. When she walked onto stage they cried – openly and unashamedly wiping the tears from their eyes with huge smiles across their faces.
The show opened, very appropriately, with ‘Magic To Do’ (Pippin) performed by the company. The show was magic. It flowed seamlessly from one song to the next, interspersed with video clips with comments from composer Stephen Schwartz or introductions from one of the cast. A large screen dropped down as needed with perfect timing to avoid it being a distraction. The whole show felt like it was a well-oiled machine that had been playing for weeks, not just three performances. Director Andrew Pole should be congratulated for a cleverly presented and well executed show.
So often with these sort of concert type events, the sound can be a problem, but the balance was just right, ensuring every harmony and every instrument was heard. Lighting cues were executed with precision and changed as needed to enhance the mood of the song. As musical director, Guy Simpson took these beautifully written Stephen Schwartz compositions and brought them to life through an incredible sounding band. Markey clearly had the best on board.
As for those six performers – they very quickly demonstrated why they are all internationally renowned, each having their moments to shine in the spotlight as well as sharing duets and full company numbers. It’s hard to find just one highlight as the show was filled with them and talking to audience members after the show it seems everyone had a different favourite moment.
Helen Dallimore originated the role of Glinda in Wicked in the West End. Defying Gravity gave Australian audiences a unique opportunity to hear the West End Glinda in ‘Popular’ – without the strong American accent we have now considered characteristic of Ozians. Dallimore then demonstrated her power vocals in ‘Stranger to the Rain’ (Children of Eden).
David Harris fans should be grateful to Enda Markey for bringing this popular leading man back to Australia – even if it was for just three performances. If nothing else, this concert proved that Harris belongs on the world stage. Harris possibly demonstrated the greatest diversity in styles, from the soaring ‘Corner of the Sky’ and the heartfelt ‘Beautiful City’ (during which time you could’ve heard a pin drop), to a hilarious song and dance routine with Aaron Tveit in ‘All For the Best’.
There had been considerable buzz in the week leading up to the weekend about Harris’ body after Betty Buckley told viewers of Studio 10 she followed Harris on instagram because most of the time he was topless. Needless to say, there were squeals of delight from the audience (and probably also from backstage) when Harris’ body was bared for all to see during a scene-stealing, open-shirted performance in ‘That’s How You Know’ (Enchanted) with Joanna Ampil. Let’s just say it certainly got the attention of the young girls in front!
Joanna Ampil delivered the most hauntingly beautiful rendition of ‘Colours of the Wind’ (Pocohontas) I’ve heard with incredibly crisp vocals that ensured the genius of the Schwartz story telling through song was clearly heard. Ampil also showed a lighter and playful side with the engaging and rarely performed ‘Lion Tamer’ (Magic Show).
Aaron Tveit’s performance of ‘Out There’ (Hunchback of Notre Dame) and ‘Lost In the Wilderness’ (Children of Eden) showcased his talents. A very clever mash up duet of ‘In Whatever Time We Have/As Long As You’re Mine’ (Children of Eden/Wicked) with Sutton Foster had the audience enraptured.
When Sutton Foster started singing ‘Defying Gavity’ I could feel the young girls in front of me collectively hold their breath … and then Foster hit that famous crescendo and delivered a vocal performance that left the entire audience with jaws opened wide and well deserved standing ovation. To say she “nailed it” would be an understatement. It was a beautiful balance to her incredibly soul-stirring performance of ‘When You Believe’ backed only by a guitar.
Betty Buckley had the audience singing along to ‘Just No Time At All’ (Pippin) then brought people to tears with the incredibly moving ‘Meadowlark’ – the song she has rightfully claimed as her own. It was another standing ovation moment.
The whole night was one sensational moment after the next with thunderous applause from an appreciative audience and numerous standing ovations … and then came the cherry on the cake: Stephen Schwartz took to the stage, sat down to play the piano and began to sing ‘Day By Day’ (Godspell). The finale of Stephen Schwartz, Betty Buckley, Sutton Foster, Aaron Tveit, Joanna Ampil, David Harris and Helen Dallimore all performing together was musical theatre perfection. It truly felt like we had experienced something very special.
Enda Markey has set an incredibly high standard. Defying Gravity: The Songs of Stephen Schwartz is a high quality and sophisticated show by world class performers. This was like watching a musical theatre masterclass. If it returns, do whatever you can to be there.
5 stars – only because there’s no option to give 6 stars.
Photos by Robert Catto