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Defying Gravity: the songs of Stephen Schwartz review (Theatre Royal, Sydney)

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American composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz has an uncanny ability to look deep into the souls of the characters he creates for stage and screen and communicate exactly what makes them tick. As the man behind musicals such as Pippin, Godspell, and Wicked, and having written lyrics for films including Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Schwartz has shown himself to be a diverse, always accessible and multifaceted writer.

But if there’s one particular thing Schwartz can do better than any other living musical theatre composer, it’s the “I Want” song — that first act number where a principal character articulates exactly what they’re going to strive for over the course of the show. Think Corner of the Sky from Pippin, or The Wizard and I from Wicked, or Out There from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

They’re also songs which, while usually written for a very specific context, can easily be understood as a standalone piece. So it’s no surprise that a concert celebrating Schwartz’s music, made up of many “I Want” songs interspersed with other compositions, is so successful.

Defying Gravity: the Songs of Stephen Schwartz is a smartly structured show, directed by Andrew Pole, which links the songs, offers a little context, and features some gorgeous vocal performances. Leading the cast are young Broadway stars Sutton Foster and Aaron Tveit, with Australia’s own David Harris and Helen Dallimore, and Filipino actor Joanna Ampil (who has a long association with Sydney, having played Kim in the original Australian production of Miss Saigon).

Every one of the performers gets their shot in the limelight.

Australian audiences finally get to hear Dallimore perform Popular from Wicked, after she originated the role of Glinda in the West End production 10 years ago. It’s a small comedic gem of a performance, without ever playing for laughs in the overt way so many actors do in that role.

Harris stuns with a simple and truthful performance of Beautiful City from Godspell while Ampil sings the bejesus out of The Wizard and I (after Foster and Dallimore perform excerpts from earlier incarnations of the song, offering a nice glimpse into Schwartz’s composition process).

Foster gets to sing Defying Gravity and doesn’t disappoint — there’s a dramatic integrity to her singing which has made her one of Broadway’s most sought after stars.

Tveit is truly one of Broadway’s best and most versatile singers, and he delivers a sensitive but rafter-shaking performance of Out There before putting the more classically-tinged legit side of his voice to great comedic use in Proud Lady from The Baker’s Wife.

There are also some great ensemble numbers and duets, including Foster and Tveit’s medley of As Long As You’re Mine from Wicked and In Whatever Time We Have from Children of Eden, and a very charming take on the irresistible patter song All For The Best from Godspell by Harris and Tveit.

And one of the highlights comes with special guest Broadway legend Betty Buckley, who appears halfway through the second act to perform a quick trio of Schwartz number. Her set wraps with a dramatically textured, deeply-felt performance of Meadowlark which lifted the audience to its feet. She finds new resonances within the text that many in the audience will have heard time and time again, even if the final verse of the song gets slightly away from her.

But for me, the greatest highlight is Foster’s gorgeous performance of When You Believe, a song written for the 1998 film The Prince of Egypt which was made famous with a pop version performed by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Foster wrestles the song back from the bombastic diva rendition by Houston and Carey and turns it into a tiny light of inspiration with just her voice and an acoustic guitar. It’s infinitely more affecting that way.

And it’s a performance that reminds just how powerful and direct Schwartz’s lyrics can be: “There can be miracles when you believe; though hope is frail, it’s hard to kill.” Unlike many of his contemporaries, Schwartz has always played with some of the simplest lyrical ideas and images, but they’re always extraordinarily evocative and well-crafted.

Defying Gravity is the perfect tribute to Schwartz’s art.

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Defying Gravity has final performances today at 2pm and 8pm. Images by Robert Catto

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