Venue: Garrick Theatre
Date: 19 May
MD: Mark Etherington
Host: Jenna Russell
Opening number: "Waste" (Road Show)
Guest performers: Michael Xavier, Kris Olsen, Emma Salvo
Winner: Turlough Convery (Guildford School of Acting)
Runner-up: Kara-Ami McCreanor (Performance Preparation Academy)
Highly Commended: Maud Millar (Guildhall School of Music & Drama)
Best New Song: "That Once-in-a-Lifetime Feeling" by Tim Sutton
So many talents – Review by Craig Glenday
This was my third year at this fantastic event, and I can say without doubt that the standard has never been better, a statement confirmed by those various members present who'd had the pleasure of attending all of the events over the years. Add to that a jolly hostess in the form of the ever-on-form Jenna Russell, a delightful performance by her and Michael Xavier, plus the welcome of return of last year’s winner Kris Olsen and runner-up Emma Salvo, and the afternoon had all the ingredients for a perfect Sunday in the West End.
The Garrick, usually home to Rock of Ages – not a show I've seen but one that I expect is as far from Sondheim as one could get – was the perfect size. A single grand piano and just a few chairs filled the small stage, which was made even smaller by the black drapes used to cover the set. It was suitably intimate for this kind of event, giving it the feel of a cabaret, at least from my vantage point at the front of the stalls. And with every seat in the house sold, it must have been a thrill for those on stage to perform to a packed theatre yet retain that closeness to the audience.
The show got under way with pianist Mark Etherington – who did an exemplary job, it has to be said, and must have had burning fingers by the end of the afternoon – and the massed students performing “Waste”, the opening number from Road Show. It was great to hear something from this song: it's one I love, and there are so few chances to hear anything from it done live; it also gave the chance for the two reserves – Ryan Ferrie and Tafline Steen, chosen, in the words of chairman David Ovenden, “in case of accident or poisoning” – to grab a bit of limelight. Tafline's “I'm the one that you fucked” must've shocked anyone new to this number but got an uproarious laugh all the same.
After a brief introduction by Jenna - who can be forgiven for stumbling comically over Sondheim’s name, considering that she’s on stage every other day of the week in Merrily We Roll Along - and a welcome message from David, the Royal Academy’s Beth Peach-Robinson was the first to take the stage. Beth set the bar incredibly high with the rarely heard “Don’t Laugh” from Hot Spot. This challenging song, written by Sondheim for Mary Rogers’ 1963 political satire, asks a lot of the performer, hauling them through a range of emotions and ideas so typical of Sondheim at his best. Beth pulled it off delightfully well with a heartwarming performance that must have struck fear into the hearts of her fellow competitors. For her new song, she tackled “There’s No Such Thing As Magic” from Family Portrait by Theo Jamieson. Again, a complex song with a lot going on (especially for pianist Mark!), it was handled and delivered beautifully, although as with many songs from new shows, without the context, it's hard to appreciate the writing. It was also nice to see Beth acknowledge her accompanist for his contribution.
Maud Millar, an opera student at the Guildhall, showed off her remarkable voice with “Losing My Mind”. I've always thought that singing classic songs such as this is a risk at SSSSPOTY, as everyone knows and loves them so well and has their own opinion of how they should be delivered. Maud gave a flawless rendition, however, wringing out the pain but keeping control at all times and not allowing it to get overblown. For her new song, she chose “Love Will Find A Way”, a cabaret number by the songwriting duo Barry Anderson and Mark Petty. Striking a sassy pose, Maud relished this slice of girl power and reminded me of a younger Hannah Waddingham.
The first of the boys to sing was Dylan Mason, who, judging from the cheer, had his fan club in. For his Sondheim, he opted for the ridiculously challenging “Franklin Shephard Inc.” from Merrily. For all the performers, striking the balance between acting and singing is always a challenge in this competition, and while Maud for example kept the acting to a minimum, Dylan got into it fully, erring on the side of acting over the singing just a little bit too much for my liking. But it was a funny, manic performance that got the biggest roar of approval thus far. His other song, “Excalibur 93" by Dan and Reece Looney from The Confession Room, provided yet more opportunity for Dylan to show off his acting skills, and he gave a much better performance of this fantastic song, a touching confession from a nerd who escapes into an online fantasy world.
The performers presented in threes, so during the changeover, Jenna delighted the crowd with her “Sondheim anecdote”, as instructed in her script. “I nearly shat myself,” she recounted in her typically colourful way, when she first worked with Sondheim alongside Julia McKenzie on the original London Follies. She also described receiving 8,000 notes from Sondheim after the last ever matinee of Sunday in the Park with George in New York!
The next trio of performers was led by Turlough Convery, who performed the best rendition of “Ariadne” from The Frogs that I think I've ever seen or heard. The perfect choice, this song offers comedy, pathos and the chance for the singer to showcase their voice, and the gorgon-haired Turlough knocked it out of the theatre with a funny yet tender delivery touched with sadness. For me, this would have been the performance of the day had he not gone on to sing “The Only Prince Around”, an even funnier number – a standalone cabaret song – about the realities of being a Disney prince. The combination of a great song and Turlough’s love for storytelling (he’s Irish and wrote in the programme of the importance of sharing stories in his bio) resulted in a performance that would give any West End star a run for their money.
Next up, another student from across the Irish Sea, Nina Logue, pulled off an interpretation of “Could I Leave You” that managed to be feel fresh and different, although again for me was too much about the acting and not enough about the singing. But she settled into it eventually and gave a solid finish. Her new song choice, “The Boy Across the Bay” from Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger’s musical version of Mallory Towers, however, did nothing for me, and I felt Nina’s pitching may have been a bit off, but she certainly gave it a good shot.
Michael Watson-Gray, who studies at the Drama Studio London, offered up “Free” from Forum, another song that rarely gets an outing (in fact, the last time I’d heard this live was at last year’s competition). Michael’s voice, clear as a bell, suited this song well, and he struck the perfect acting-singing balance. It was clearly a popular choice with the audience, too, who give him the biggest cheer of the whole afternoon. His second number, “The Pen Song”, was less thrilling; selected from the writings of World War II Dutch resistance fighter Peter Toksvig – father of comedienne Sandi – and adapted by Jenifer Toksvig and Alexander Rudd, it just didn't stir me, despite the calibre of the creators and the undoubtedly inspirational true stories on which it's based. I suspect subsequent listens might be in order.
Just before the interval, Jenna invited on stage Michael Xavier, her co-star in the Regents Park Into The Woods and, more recently, Stiles and Drewe’s Soho Cinders, and together they gave a lovely performance of “Remember Us” from Soho Cinders. They make a lovely couple and are clearly very fond of each other, which came across in this pretty duet from a show that needs much more stage time in the West End.
After the interval, Laura Darton offered up “What More Do I Need?” From Saturday Night. It was an assured and well acted performance of a not-so-exciting song, confirming in my mind that it’s the funnier numbers that get the judges excited. Similarly, her new song choice - “That Once-in-a-Lifetime Feeling” by Tim Sutton, a former winner of the Stiles and Drewe Award (2011) – was witty and well-crafted, but was something of a slow starter; it picked up towards the end, though, and Laura couldn't be faulted for her delivery.
“Giants in the Sky”, which helped 2011 winner Taron Egerton take home the prize money, offered the Oxford School of Drama’s George Mercer a chance to shine, and although he did a competent job it was unlikely to be a competition winner. Sadly, he wasn't helped by his second song – "Proud" by Lee Freeman and Mark Anderson – which was a complex, difficult song with too much chatter. Again, he hit all the right notes and gave a convincing performance, but failed to do enough to stand out.
Second-year RADA student Alistair Toovey gave us a simple, clear, and perhaps unspectacular “Not While I'm Around” – again, a well-loved and therefore risky song choice. He did a more convincing job of his second song, “Til Tomorrow” by husband and wife team Chris Passey and Amy Carroll, although I found the song uninspiring and couldn't stay focused on it.
The final threesome took the stage, starting with a well-sung if perhaps over-acted “Moments in the Woods” from Brooke Markham. It was a shame that the performance was overshadowed by the distracting acting, as Brooke clearly has a lovely tone to her voice. She redeemed herself in style, though, with her new song, “17 Drafts”. This hilarious number - about a girl who's besotted by a boy who’s besotted by another girl – benefitted from Brooke’s camp and enthusiastic delivery, and for me was the highlight of the day, in terms of both performance and song.
Phoebe Pryce - another second-year RADA student - offered up “The Last Midnight” from Into the Woods and gave an evil, intense performance that was let down only by her ill-judged timing. Her second song didn't do her any favours, unfortunately; “The Bird Song”, from The Postman's Opera by Mark Redmond and Merlon Rhys Jones, was just a bit predictable and failed to take flight despite Phoebe’s sweet voice.
Finally, Kara-Ami McCreanor, accessorised with a black shawl, gave a haunting account of “I Read” from Passion. Hers was the most complete performance of the day – starting at the back of stage, she shuffled forward as the blighted Fosca, a role she inhabited entirely. I was taken out of the competition and transported immediately into the show, so believable and heartfelt was the performance. Her second song, “Ready for You” by theatrical all-rounder Stuart Matthew Price – a decent, well-crafted number that reminded me of Jason Robert Brown – showed off the Performance Preparation Academy student’s big voice and was a nice, if unremarkable, end to the contest.
While the judges deliberated, Jenna treated us to a few numbers - “Carrying a Torch” from Stiles and Drew’s The Shakespeare Review, “Like it Was” from Merrily, and her all-time favourite Sondheim song “I Remember” from Evening Primrose. As ever, she was a joy and will surely be welcome back as a host any time. Also helping to plug the gap between the contest and results was 2012 winner Kris Olsen, who was joined by runner-up Emma Salvo. This comic duo delivered a fantastic version of “Country House”, that delicious number written for the London Follies in 1987 and that, sadly, is no longer part of the show. Both of them demonstrated just why they were winners with a nuanced, comedic performance that deserved more than just this one outing at SSSSPOTY.
When the performance results came, no one was surprised with the overall winner, apart maybe from Turlough Convery himself, who ruffled his already ruffled hair in disbelief and beamed from ear to ear. Patron Julia McKenzie and donor Rex Bunnett of Overtures (The Bunnett-Muir Musical Theatre Archive Trust) handed over the prize money of £1,000, while the runner-up prize of £500 went to the well-deserving Kari-Ami McCreanor. The Chair of the judging panel, Edward Seckerson, also unexpectedly announced a “highly-commended” prize for the opera student Maud Millar, such was the challenge facing the judges this year.
So, another successful year – with better performances and better songs. It was reassuring to know that the event was a sell-out, as it and the students deserve all the attention they can get. It really is a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The only disappointment was that Turlough didn't get to sing his winning song again. Mind you, i wouldn't be surprised if he made up for it in the pub afterwards...
The Student Performer of the Year Finalists (in order of performance)
Beth Peach-Robinson Born in the West Midlands, Beth’s love for Theatre and performing has always played a prominent role. Before moving to Cardiff to study for a Bachelor in Music, she spent every moment she could on the amateur stage. After finishing her degree, she decided to pursue her dream of a career in theatre. She is now extremely privileged to be training at the Royal Academy of Music, thanks to the continued support of friends and family
Sondheim: “Don't Laugh” (Hot Spot)
BNS: “There's No Such Thing As Magic” by Theo Jamieson
Maud Millar is a Cambridge graduate currently studying with Susan McCulloch at GSMD. In recent years, Maud has embarked on a career as an Opera singer, making her professional debut in 2012 as Nella (Gianni Schicchi) for Opera Holland Park, but her first love was musical theatre. At school, she played the roles of Laurie (Oklahoma!) and Reno (Anything Goes), and went on to play Sally (Follies) and Lois (Kiss Me, Kate!) for the ADC. She is very grateful to the Sondheim Society for putting her back on the musical theatre stage where she belongs!
Sondheim: “Losing My Mind” (Follies)
BNS: “Love Will Find Its Way” by Barry Anderson & Mark Petty
Dylan Mason is currently in 2nd Year training in Musical Theatre BA(Hons) at ArtsEd. Roles whilst training include: Gene in Saturday Night, Dance Captain/Ensemble in Dirty Dancing, The Colonel in Passion and Friday Night is Music Night on BBC Radio 2. Workshops include creating the role of Terrence in new musical Wild Wood by Robert Lindsay and Nigel Hess. Dylan is delighted and incredibly humbled to be performing tonight and wishes the best of luck to all the finalists.
Sondheim: “Franklin Shepard, Inc." (Merrily We Roll Along)
BNS: “Excalibur 93” by Dan Looney & Reece Looney
Turlough Convery (winner) is honoured to be taking part in the competition. "I come from an acting background and as I am Irish, storytelling and songs at family parties have been an integral part of my development into adulthood. With Sondheim I found a marriage of drama, storytelling and music which attracted and excited me and I find that same rush every time I perform one of his songs."
Sondheim: “Ariadne” (The Frogs)
BNS: “The Only Prince Around” by Darren Clark
Nina Logue hails from Northern Ireland. After gaining a degree in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh, she went on to train at BOVTS. Her Musical Theatre credits include several Sondheim roles, her favourites being Anita in West Side Story, Woman in Marry Me A Little, Joanne in Company, and Vibrata in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. She is honoured to be performing today and hopes you enjoy the show.
Sondheim: “Could I Leave You?” (Follies)
BNS: “The Boy Across The Bay” by Pippa Cleary & Jake Brunger
Michael Watson-Gray started performing as part of the King’s College (London) Musical Theatre Society while studying War Studies, and loved it so much that after graduating decided to train to perform professionally. He graduates this summer from Drama Studio London where he has enjoyed two years studying acting. He is honoured and thrilled to perform for the Sondheim Society having loved Sondheim for years, previously playing Jack in Into the Woods and Sam Byck in Assassins.
Sondheim: “Free” (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)
BNS: “The Pen Song” by Jen Toksvig & Alexander Rudd
Laura Darton graduates from the BA (Hons) Musical Theatre course at Mountview in September this year, and is the recipient of the Peter Coxhead and Ian Fleming Awards. Roles while training include: Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Sarah in Company and Emily Tallentire in The Hired Man. Laura is thrilled to be taking part in the Competition.
Sondheim: “What More Do I Need?” (Saturday Night)
BNS: “That Once-in-a-Lifetime Feeling” by Tim Sutton
George Mercer is currently training on the musical theatre course at the Oxford School of Drama, where he has just played the part of Joe in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro. Prior to the OSD, he took part in Dorset Opera's summer school, and was in Paul Kerryson's production of West Side Story at The Curve, Leicester, playing the part of Baby John. "The course at Oxford has opened my eyes to the world of music and theatre and I'm thrilled to be representing my fellow students in this competition."
Sondheim: “Giants in the Sky” (Into the Woods)
BNS: “Proud” by Lee Freeman & Mark Anderson
Alistair Toovey was born in Oxfordshire, but spent much of his early childhood in America. Before beginning his actor training, he appeared at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre as Ralph in a stage adaptation of the Golding classic Lord of the Flies. Alistair is currently in his second year at RADA, and is thrilled to be participating in the Stephen Sondheim Society Competition.
Sondheim: “Not While I'm Around” (Sweeney Todd)
BNS: “’Til Tomorrow” by Chris Passey & Amy Carroll
Brooke Markham is ecstatic to be a part of this wonderful competition. Selected credits include: Angela in the world premiere of Gracie and the Atom (Artists Repertory Theatre), Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale (LAMDA) Maria in Twelfth Night (Bag&Baggage Productions), and Yulia in Summerfolk (LAMDA). Many thanks to her beautiful family for their endless support and to her incredible London family, you’re the best a girl could ever ask for. “I love you!
Sondheim: “Moments in the Woods” (Into the Woods)
BNS: “17 Drafts” by Tamar Broadbent
Phoebe Pryce was born and raised in London, and iis currently in her second year at RADA. Before starting her acting training she appeared on the Edinburgh and London Fringe and worked as an assistant in both film and TV. Having always loved musical theatre she is delighted to be taking part in this year's Stephen Sondheim Society competition.
Sondheim: “The Last Midnight” (Into The Woods)
BNS: “The Bird Song” by Mark Redmond & Merlin Rhys Jones
Kara-Ami McCreanor (runner-up) is currently in her second year of training on the 3 year Musical Theatre Course at Performance Preparation Academy where she has been given the patron Kerry Ellis as her mentor for guiding her into the industry. Roles during training include Madeleine True in The Wild Party. Others include Maureen in Rent and Susan in 5 Kinds of Silence. She is thrilled to be a finalist in the Competition.
Sondheim: “I Read” (Passion)
BNS: “Ready For You” by Stuart Matthew Price
Ryan Ferrie (1st Reserve) Ryan moved from Hertfordshire to study BA Musical Theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. While there he has performed a Sondheim tribute with the Conference of Drama Schools Choir at the 2011 Olivier Awards. Other performances include: BBC Children in Need Rocks Scotland! and John Barrowman’s Concert Tour. Now in his final year having played Mr Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors and Enoch Snow in Carousel, he is currently rehearsing for Hanchen in Spring Awakening.
Tafline Steen (2nd Reserve) Originally from Honolulu, Hawaii, Tafline now hails from Bedfordshire. Currently in her final year at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, previous productions include King Lear (Citizens Theatre), Tartuffe, Twelfth Night, A Lie of the Mind (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), Fame! The Musical and Facebook: The Musical (Hartshorn-Hook Productions). She will be appearing in Howard Barker’s The Possibilities at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow from the 30 May–1 June.
Student Performer of the Year: Edward Seckerson (Chair), Julia McKenzie, Michael Grandage, Imelda Staunton, Mike Haslam, Matthew Scott, Bert Fink
Stiles+Drewe Prize for Best New Song: Adam Cork, George Stiles & Anthony Drewe