THEATRE REVIEW: Defying Gravity – The Songs of Stephen Schwartz (2016)

When the announcement of the Defying Gravity Concert was publicised, it was hardly a surprise that my entire Twitter and Facebook feeds leapt up in complete excitement. It’s an event that personally, I’ve wished for years. Both Aaron Tveit and Sutton Foster have been two Broadway figures I have long admired and admittedly fangirled over – I’ve followed Aaron’s career from his good old Next to Normal days (which remains my favourite musical to date), to the short-lived joys of Catch Me If You Can. In addition, joined with Broadway veteran, Betty Buckley, fantastic Australian actors, David Harris and Helen Dallimore, as well as Joanna Ampil, the concert didn’t disappoint at all – surpassing any sort of high expectations I had entering into the Theatre Royal.

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Stephen Schwartz with his cast of Defying Gravity. Photo by Robert Catto.

The tribute to Stephen Schwartz alternated between anecdotes, video snippets of Schwartz introducing his composing process, to the extraordinary performances themselves. The opening number from Pippin ‘Magic To Do’ cemented the exemplary talent of each individual performer – culminating into wonderful harmonies and an energetic atmosphere that resonated throughout the rest of the concert’s running time. The set list covered the career span of Schwartz’s composing ventures, from his beginnings in Godspell to his latest music in Enchanted, demonstrating his versatile and legend status within the musical theatre community.

In terms of audience love, Sutton Foster received it in abundance, and deservedly so. With three Tony Awards under her belt, her best number of the night was contrastingly the intimate ‘When You Believe’ (Prince of Egypt) – a performance simply accompanied by acoustic guitar and her raw vocals – producing a deep and hauntingly moving rendition. This, juxtaposed against her performance of the title song ‘Defying Gravity’ (Wicked), which exhibited her astonishing belt and vibrato, only reinforced her vocals as one of Broadway’s finest, assembling into a mid-show standing ovation.

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Sutton Foster performs the acoustic ‘When You Believe’. Photo by Robert Catto.

That being said, the audience atmosphere was unlike anything I’ve experienced in the theatre, with extremely loud cheers mid-performance and whilst performers were finishing off their last (and most glorious) note. It was a crazy and buzzing ambience that was most definitely assisted by Tveit’s growing fanbase, notably from his recent roles in the film, Les Misérables and TV event of Grease: Live. But handling it with his usual charm, Tveit impressed with his smooth tenor vocals in ‘Lost in The Wilderness’ (Children of Eden), and a return to his Wicked roots in the mashup duet with Foster in In Whatever Time We Have’/’As Long As You’re Mine’ (Children of Eden/Wicked).

One of the most fun performances of the night included Tveit and David Harris performing ‘All For The Best’ from Godspell, an act that had them burst into hilarious banter over Australian vs American coffees, before “segwaying” into the overlapping lyrics that only emphasised Schwartz’s ability to encapsulate buoyancy and joy within his music. Additionally, David Harris’ showed off his skills in both touching audiences’ hearts, with a gorgeous interpretation of ‘Beautiful City’ (Godspell), but concurrently making them laugh hysterically in his shirtless and comical ‘That’s How You Know’ from Enchanted.

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Aaron Tveit & David Harris perform the entertaining ‘All For The Best’. Photo by Robert Catto.

Special guest Betty Buckley entered with her own spark, detailing her determination to make her personal ‘Meadowlark’ (The Baker’s Wife) – a role originally written for her. She upheld her origination of the role of Catherine in Pippin with an audience interactive version of ‘No Time At All’ (Pippin), exhibiting that she still has the guns to pull out a truly accomplished performance. Moreover, Helen Dallimore amused in her return to Glinda, a role that she originated in the London Production, in the amusing ‘Popular’ (Wicked). However, out of all of her performances, she felt truly comfortable in her talent to embody unique characters, which was shown in Endless Delights’ from The Baker’s Wife.

Yet, while the big(ger)-scale numbers were truly showstoppers themselves, the glimpse into the making of Wicked’s ‘The Wizard and I’ was perhaps one of the less obvious highlights. Sutton Foster sung a snippet of ‘Making Good’, an early version of the song which I had previously obsessed over (see Stephanie J. Block’s stunning rendition), before transitioning into Ampil’s ‘The Wizard and I’. Alongside this, the programming included Aaron Tveit’s ‘Out There’ (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), foreboding Schwartz’s promising  return to the Broadway stage.

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Betty Buckley cemented her Broadway icon status. Photo by Robert Catto

The surprise of the night was easily Joanna Ampil, who slipped under the radar amongst the American Broadway performers, but who made a breathtaking impression. Taking on the classic songs of ‘Colours of the Wind’ (Pocohontas) and ‘The Wizard and I’ (Wicked), she proved herself to be worthy and beyond of her acclaimed West End and Phillipines theatre credits. Ampil’s soaring and crystal clear tone won the audience’s affection early on in the concert, and she continued to dazzle in her smaller duets and solos in the second act.

Though at times feeling slightly under-rehearsed (there were words and lyrics plastered for the actors on the reverse-screen usually for musical conductors), it nevertheless did not effect the professionalism or quality of the performances by the cast. In fact, the exceptional level of talent and the wonderful music made me wish the concert would never end. It ran 2.5 hrs (with interval), but it flew by too fast – much like its very limited run in Australia. Essentially, the Defying Gravity Concert is some kind of rarity to occur in a country so far away from the main stages of New York and London, which made it particularly special. And with an unannounced appearance by Stephen Schwartz himself at the end of the night, it was just a cherry on top of an outstandingly organised event.

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Stephen Schwartz’s surprise appearance – singing ‘Day by Day’. Photo by Robert Catto.


DEFYING GRAVITY: THE SONGS OF STEPHEN SCHWARTZ

Produced by Enda Markey
Musical Direction by Guy Simpson
Direction by Andrew Pole

RATING ★★ out of 5

 

Top 10 Films of 2015 (Also… a hearty welcome!)

Welcome to The Social Film Network!

I thought it would be a nice way to introduce the creation of this film blog by outlining some of my favourite films from 2015. This website has been in the making for a while now, but after a year or so of procrastination, I am back and determined to start writing and continue watching as many films as possible.

So… here are my TOP 10 FILMS FOR 2015. Hope to see you around!

10. Mommy

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My first Dolan film didn’t disappoint – an intricate and breathtaking look into family dynamics. Establishing a reputation upon himself as a blossoming young filmmaker, Xavier Dolan’s Mommy flourishes with its tenderness and angst, its tonal shifts,  altering film ratios and interesting soundtrack choices. It’s exasperatingly powerful, but also interweaves a ray of indescribable warmth through its running time.

9. The Dressmaker

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By far one of the better Australian films I have seen, The Dressmaker is crisply shot and subverts genre expectations with both glee and tongue-in-cheek intellect. Winslet, Hemsworth, Davis and Weaving’s performances are excellent (with Winslet perfecting the Australian accent), and it draws in Australian humour within a film that replicates a Shakespearean revenge tragedy. It may be shot in the outback, but with a mother-daughter relationship, an unconventional plot and its gorgeous costume and production design, its far from the typical Australian outback story.

8. The Revenant

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A gruelingly cold film, The Revenant‘s long running time is saved by its stunning cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) and Leonardo DiCaprio’s haunting performance. Pitting the helplessness of mankind within a survival revenge story, Innaritu’s recreation of Hugh Glass’ story is undeniably brutal and confronting – yet, its exploration into the deterioration of ‘civilised’ white mankind, remains an intriguing study into the dangers of underestimating the natural world and the authority of an overarching power.

7. Tehran Taxi

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The newest venture from Jafar Panahi is an optimistic one – Tehran Taxi blurs the line between documentary and reality, commentating on Iranian censorship in a manner which is equally hopeful and unique. Driving around Tehran in a taxi and picking up a variety of passengers along the way, Panahi’s encounters in the city landscape consist of amusing and interesting characters, tying itself with more urgent issues. Importantly, its self-reflexive awareness to its own film shooting, juxtaposing to Panahi’s niece’s own attempt to capture real-life within the strict censorship rules of Iran, highlights the inherent difficulties of representing ‘reality’.

Read my review here.

6. Room

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Room reduced me to a blubbering mess and Lenny Abrahamson’s wondrous direction with his actors, Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, is a real testament to that. In a story that encapsulates itself within closed spaces and an underlying darkness, its simultaneous openness to emotionality and heart is the real shining light of this film. Tremblay carries this performance from his narrative point-of-view, bringing the audience a return to innocence and an exploration into an unbreakable mother-son bond that will break your heart and stomp all over it (in a good way).

5. Carol

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Todd Haynes’ Carol is nothing short of heart wrenchingly beautiful. Shot in gorgeous 16mm, its aesthetic is simply alluring – reflective windows and grainy textures –  drenching the film inside its 1960s milieu. It is bound to grow on a rewatch, but meanwhile its subdued and controlled tone, continues to linger hazily in my mind. Led by exquisite performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and accompanied by a sweeping score by Carter Burwell, Carol is an intimate, elegant and momentous glimpse into a forbidden love.

4. Inside Out

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A fresh, original concept underlies Pete Doctor’s Inside Out – a film that imagines that emotions inside one’s head are real characters – controlling thought and active human processes. It’s rather an innovative rarity in the realm of contemporary films, which form basis around real historical events, people and novel adaptations. And whilst inventively fabricating this notion, it remains a touching story of adolescent growth, concurrently hitting a wave of adult nostalgia that allows it to retain accessibility across generations. Notably, Bing-Bong as the pink elephant imaginary friend and the glass balls of memories that end up in lost realm of long-term memory rings as poignantly truthful – something the whole film successfully achieves.

3. Phoenix

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In some ways, Phoenix is 2015’s Ida. There lies a similar difficulty in articulating the complexities the film embodies – its evocation of agonising pain yet also a hopeful yearning touches upon its post-Holocaust context – but extends towards the need for remembrance and forgotten suffering. To reflect the comparable complication of claiming a new sense of identity after significant trauma, coupled with Petzold’s slow direction, and its haunting performances, notably Nina Hoss’, it all remarkably pays off (and let’s not even begin to talk about the closing scene).

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

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Riveting, pounding, and never relinquishing its control over its audience – Mad Max: Fury Road is one impressive action flick. George Miller’s direction is absolutely unforgettable… I don’t think I can remember the last time I left a cinema so dazed by the continuity of action happening up on a screen. The collaboration of excellent editing, cinematography and Junkie XL’s under-appreciated, incredible score, combines into an elevated experience that is unmatched in the 2015 year. Its simplicity in plot never plays as a disadvantage, and is instead used a mechanism to heighten its technical achievements to create its powerful and thrilling momentum.

1. Brooklyn

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On the surface, Brooklyn seems like a conventional, costume-drama pic – but dig a little harder, its sincerity and charm is easily its shining glory. Led by Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey – a girl trapped between two countries, its examination into what shapes a ‘home’ is heartfelt and profound. It’s a movie that begins to creep up, and grows on you, almost like Eilis’ own sense of realisation and identity as she learns about herself throughout this moving journey. Shaped by its gorgeous costume and production design, Brooklyn‘s lovely and genuine excellence holds it up as my favourite film of 2015.

Honourable mentions: The Peanuts Movie, The Lobster, Suffragette, Trainwreck, The Martian, Love & Mercy, Sicario, Bridge of Spies, 99 Homes, Pan, Seymour: An Introduction, Shaun the Sheep: Movie, Far From the Madding Crowd, Girlhood, Beyond the Lights, Infinitely Polar Bear