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.

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.

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.

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.

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


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

RATING ★★ out of 5


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