This week, Riverside Theatres announced the first concert in its brand-new series of specially produced digital concerts, You’ll never walk alone, which streams live at 5pm today (Sunday 31 May).
You’ll never walk alone sees Helpmann Award-winner and Riverside favourite Luke Joslin (Les Misérables (Director) Avenue Q, Shrek) directing the highs and lows of your favourite musical theatre songs, performed by friends Rachael Beck (Barnum, The Circus Musical, Me and My left brain (film), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), Daniel Belle (Ten Tenors, Les Misérables), Michael Cormick (Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera), Robert McDougall, Penny McNamee, with legendary musical director Michael Tyack AM on piano.
For almost five years, Penny McNamee has played Tori in Home and Away, one of Australia’s longest-running television series. Just before beginning her time on the show, McNamee appeared on stage at Riverside Theatres in Packemin Productions’ sell out season of Mary Poppins in the title role.
“I performed in Mary Poppins in July 2015 and then in October, I booked Tori in Home and Away,” McNamee tells Theatre People.
Many fans of musical theatre in Australia came to know McNamee when she originated the role of Nessarose in the Australian premiere of Wicked in 2008. She recalls first becoming aware of the show while living in the US.
“I first heard about Wicked, I think, when I was 20, when it began on Broadway. I happened to be living in LA at the time, and a friend of mine gave me the CD,” she says. “Of course, like everyone, I became obsessed with it and learned every word.
“I knew I was going to be too young for Elphaba, and so from that point on, I had my eye on the prize of Nessa, and spent a lot of time working on the songs and the scenes, and I felt like I had the right look for Nessa.”
But she adds: “Auditioning was terrifying, because you knew that this show was going to be such a huge hit, so the pressure felt real.”
McNamee has since learned that she was the first principal to be cast in the Australian production of Wicked.
“I think I was just the right age and the right look and the right voice type for that particular role at that particular moment in time, and sometimes you get really lucky like that. I think that was just one of those moments, and it was thrilling,” she says.
“It was an amazing production to be part of, I made some of the greatest friends in that show. Literally today, I’ve already spoken to Lucy Durack and Johanna Allen … That’s when I met them and they’re two of my best friends now. It was an amazing time.”
McNamee is loving her time on Home and Away but admits that she does miss musical theatre.
“I miss music. I love acting in television, particularly fast-paced television, I love the thrill of finding the beats in a scene, but I miss music. I miss the sound of an orchestra warming up, I miss that real adrenalin pumping just before you go out on stage, I miss a live audience. There’s a lot I miss about musical theatre. I miss the people … Musical theatre people have a real pop in their step; they’re very quick-witted and upbeat, and I miss that energy.”
That said, don’t expect to see her leaving Summer Bay any time soon.
“I love it too much to leave,” McNamee says. “I just enjoy the work so much.”
Talking about the current COVID-19 crisis, McNamee recalls when filming on Home and Away halted in mid-March.
“We finished filming on the Friday and as far as we knew, we were coming back on Monday and filming,” she says. “And then, we got an email on Sunday afternoon, saying filming had been suspended and we were stood down without pay immediately.
“That week, I got phone call after phone call from my girlfriends saying, ‘Our show was just cancelled’, ‘Our musical was just cancelled’. A lot of my best girlfriends are in musicals and … I had a lot of friends in tears on the phone that week. It was happening around the country, not unique to the arts industry, but certainly the arts is one of the industries that it has hit the hardest.”
McNamee comments on how difficult it is not being able to plan for the future, given that we don’t yet know what the future will look like.
“I think that’s frustrating for a lot of my actor colleagues and friends,” she says. “A lot of them had projects that they were about to get up, and they were producing, and they were writing, and it just feels like there’s this big pause button put on it all and this cloud of uncertainty hovering above us.”
After nine weeks on hold, filming on Home and Away has now recommenced.
“I’m so fortunate that I get to go back and start acting again this week on Home and Away,” McNamee says. “But I’m worried for my friends and I feel so sad for my friends that their projects aren’t going back. A lot of those musicals were cancelled and won’t get up again, so I feel great sadness about it and frustration.”
McNamee was asked to be part of Riverside Theatres’ You’ll never walk alone by director Luke Joslin. She is very excited about the cast.
“I grew up loving and admiring Rachel Beck and Michael Cormick, so performing with them, for me, is a thrill,” she says.
McNamee says that something she likes about Joslin as a director is that he knows what an audience wants.
“He’s not a self-indulgent director or performer,” she explains. “He doesn’t say, “I’m going to get people to perform these songs that no one’s ever heard of because the actors and the singers want to sing them’. He knows what an audience wants, so I knew that he’d be putting on a concert that would have mass appeal and, sure enough, as soon as I looked at the song list, I thought, ‘Yep, he nailed it!’”
So, any hint as to what’s included on the song list?
“A Les Mis medley, songs from The Secret Garden, a Beauty and the Beast medley with Rachel and Michael … such great classic songs,” McNamee says.
And what can we expect to hear from McNamee herself?
“I’m doing a real Barbra Streisand show classic song, and I’m also doing something a little different,” she says.
“I performed a beautiful musical when I lived in New York, called Daddy Long Legs. It was a gift of a musical and I played the lead role, so I’m singing a song from Daddy Long Legs as well, which is a just a little taste of something different that the audience might not have heard before.”
McNamee looks forward to taking the stage shortly at Riverside Theatres.
“What’s exciting about this Riverside concert … is it’s going to be streamed live, but like it’s a concert. The actors are going to be on the stage at the Riverside, [there will be] multiple camera angles, [and] we’ll be performing standing next to the grand piano and Michael Tyack … It will feel like [the audience is] actually watching a real concert.”
YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE – RIVERSIDE THEATRES DIGITAL (DETAILS)
When: 5pm Sunday May 31 2020
Tickets: Starting from $12