The Queensland Symphony Orchestra regularly programs both Opera and Musical Gala evenings that are well patronised by loyal audiences. Given the plethora of musical hits from classic musicals of the 1930s through to recent shows, the choice of material can depend on the repertoire of the vocalists engaged. This year, musical theatre stars Amy Lehpamer and Alexander Lewis, ably supported by younger artists Lucinda Wilson and Aidan O Cleirigh, offered songs as wide ranging as Rodgers and Hammerstein through Kander, Bernstein and Sondheim to Lloyd Webber and Schönberg.
They were assisted by a chorus of the Year 2 Bachelor of Musical Theatre Students from the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, which added a big musical sound to many of the songs. In his inimitable style, the ever-popular Guy Noble was both host as well as Conductor. His sense of fun and off-the-cuff remarks were exactly what was needed to keep the concert light and frothy.
Production values included an excellent sound system and a concert lighting rig with stage effects and changing colours, but both costuming, movement and other staging was minimal, which left the overall high-energy musical presentation lacking.
Starting with Gershwin’s bright and breezy overture from Girl Crazy, the mood of the evening was set with some fine swing music from the orchestra and great brass playing. Part of the overture, standards such as ‘Embraceable You’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’, got the audience toe-tapping from the beginning. This was followed by a raunchy interpretation by Amy Lehpamer of Velma Kelly’s ‘All that Jazz’ from Kander’s Chicago, a show stopping number well supported by the student chorus.
Bernstein’s West Side Story offered two songs. Tony’s ‘Something’s Coming’ was well managed and sung by an energetic Alexander Lewis, while the duet ‘A Boy Like That’ contrasted the tough anger of Lehpamer’s Anita alongside the sweet, high soprano of Wilson’s Maria.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were well-represented with The Sound of Music and Carousel. Lehpamer played Maria in the Australian tour of The Sound of Music in 2016, but surprisingly her rendition of the famous opening song seemed to lack energy and panache, the sweeping music of the orchestral score failing to resonate vocally. The duet that followed, ‘Something Good’ with Lewis as the Captain, was much better; both artists offering a sensitive and gently romantic interpretation.
Lewis also gave a finely nuanced, well-phrased and marvellous interpretation of Billy Bigelow’s ‘Soliloquy’ from Carousel, one of the great songs of musical theatre. It was a highlight of the evening.
Schönberg’s glorious Les Misérables, with so many memorable tunes, gave us Fantine’s aria, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ sung by Lehpamer with suitable emotional gravitas, though her diction was sometimes hard to understand within the swelling sounds of a full orchestra. It might well have helped the song to have staged it more dramatically.
Act 1 of the Gala Concert then ended as it does in the musical itself, with ‘One Day More’ utilising the full cast in a rousing rendition. Principal roles were taken by Lewis as Jean Valjean, Lehpamer as Éponine, O Cleirigh as Javert and Wilson as Cosette. Within the student chorus, Bradley Oakman was a strong Enjolras, Benjamin Hamilton a delightful Marius and Oliver Clisdell and Sophie Gulloch the conniving Thenardiers. While well sung, and with suitable red, white and blue lighting, one could have wished for some additional production or choreography to make this powerful song really sparkle.
Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera opened the second half with the orchestral ‘Entracte’, very well played under Guy Nobel’s firm hand. This led to the character of Christine reminiscing in ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’. Impressively and powerfully sung by Wilson, her deceptively light soprano had a steely centre and solid top notes. It was certainly a voice to remember and it was a pity she had so little to sing in this concert.
Jesus Christ Superstar showed the early Lloyd Webber at his musical best, the marvellous opening eight bars of music preceding the sardonic ‘Herod’s Song’. This was a wonderful vehicle for O Cleirigh to strut his stuff and he demonstrated a strong stage presence and voice. Joined by two dancers and with some clever choreography, this was the only ‘staged’ piece in the concert and worked so well; it made one long for more numbers just like this.
The marvellous work of Stephen Sondheim was well represented. First was ‘Agony’ from Into the Woods, where the two princes bemoan their fate in falling for two complicated women. This is a glorious duet full of dark humour and wit. While both Lewis and O Cleirigh sang well, the vocal line and text are complex and some of the sardonic humour was lost, so the song sadly failed to ignite.
A Sondheim specialist, Lewis sung two other arias, one from Sunday in the Park with George and one from Company. ‘Finishing the Hat’ is an extraordinary song about a painter’s life and work, which Lewis managed with great intelligence and fine, rich vocals. A really superb performance. Equally, he shone in the tremendous ‘Being Alive’ from Company, with his strong vocal range and great breath-control.
Lehpamer also sang the delightful ‘Popular’ from Schwartz’s Wicked and Fanny Brice’s ‘Don’t Rain on my Parade’ from Funny Girl. But it was Sally Bowles’ heartfelt ‘Maybe This Time’ from Kander’s Cabaret that showed off her best singing of the night in a powerful interpretation.
The concert ended with an old favourite – Bernstein’s wonderful ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ from Candide with the full company, quite lovingly played and sung. There were three encores – one an extended sing-a-long to ‘Do-Re-Mi’ from The Sound of Music, followed by the Monty Python-esque Spamalot piece ‘This is the Song that Goes Like This’ which was quite fun, and finally a serious rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel with Lehpamer and Lewis.
Musical Theatre Gala
Queensland Symphony Orchestra
Concert Hall, QPAC, Brisbane
Presented in association with Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University
Conductor and MC/host: Guy Noble
Soloists: Amy Lehpamer, Alexander Lewis, Lucinda Wilson and Aidan O Cleirigh
Chorus: Emerging artists from the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University
Musical Theatre Gala was performed on 29 October 2022.