Friday, 18 December 2020

REVIEW: Unlimited: The Songs of Stephen Schwartz at (Online)

For a title referencing perhaps Stephen Schwartz’s best-known musical, and a troupe of nine singers comprised of past cast members, it’s surprising that only one Wicked song appears in this well-put-together online revue and celebration of Schwartz’s work. However, that is in no way a disappointment, with a fine selection of the composer and lyricist’s back catalogue from both stage and screen on offer: Pippin, Children of Eden, Pocahontas, Godspell and The Prince of Egypt all feature, and are performed with the level of passion and craft we expect to see from such musical theatre talent. 

The audience is initially greeted by the very man himself, sat, of course, at a piano; a charming nod to the old televised format of musical revues we now find ourselves returning to in the absence of live performance. Schwartz’s career spans over four decades, and this whistle-stop tour of some of his more famous works is a great introduction for those unfamiliar with his work, as well as an enjoyable trip down memory lane for existing fans. 

After the composer’s warm welcome, we’re greeted with our socially-distanced performers (Melanie La Barrie, Nikki Bentley, Sophie Evans, Alice Fearn, Alexia Khadime, Carl Man, Dianne Pilkington, Liam Tamne and Oliver Tompsett) and musical director Nick Barstow at the piano. It’s a nice setup and we’re met with a visual array of camera angles to keep things fresh and feel close the performers – one of the silver linings of this replacement format to live theatre. At the end of the show, we’re told filming took place at the Kimpton Fitzroy Hotel, and while this gives proceedings a delicious slice of glamour and a genuine cabaret feel – particularly the sections held at the bar - it’s a shame it wasn’t recorded in a theatre. For it’s not just auditoriums full of audiences that we miss; it’s the before and after hustle and bustle of beautiful (or somewhat crumbling, depending on the venue) foyers and bars that make up all the spaces of a theatre. Yes, we miss the performances, the electricity, but we miss the buildings, too.

That said, there is plenty of magic in this recording. Stand out numbers include “A World Without You” (Children of Eden) delivered beautifully by Oliver Tompsett, a gorgeous duet of “If I Never Knew You” (Pocahontas) from Alice Fearn and Liam Tamne, and sultry Godspell number “Turn Back, O Man” delivered in true cabaret style by Melanie La Barrie sat at the bar (my personal highlight.) In addition to the songs, we have snippets of interviews and discussions amongst the cast on what they are missing about live theatre, their favourite roles and more. Far from being distracting, this adds a wider context to Schwartz’s work; how it fits within the landscape of musical theatre, the communities and friendships it creates, and the genuine love of the work with which the cast perform.

The runtime feels about right, and the pacing and order of the numbers works well. There’s a good mixture of upbeat, soulful songs, from “Magic to Do” (Pippin) and “The Spark of Creation” (Children of Eden) along with more emotional pieces such as “Beautiful City” and “On The Willows” (both Godspell). I am not ashamed to admit I shed a tear or two at “When You Believe” (The Prince of Egypt), a stunning duet with Alice Fearn and Nikki Bentley, and my heart went out to Liam Tamne, Alexia Khadime and their fellow The Prince of Egyptcastmates as he explained they had to close a mere five weeks after opening due to lockdown before an expert rendition of “Footprints on the Sand”. The good news is their original cast recording is available to buy and has been nominated for a Grammy. Here’s hoping they’ll be back on stage as soon as it is safe to do so and fingers crossed for a well-deserved win in January.

The final number will please Schwartz and musical theatre fans aplenty, with a gorgeous quintet arrangement between the women of the group (Nikki Bentley, Sophie Evans, Alice Fearn, Alexia Khadime, and Dianne Pilkington.) With women making up the majority of frontline workers (in the social care workforce, for example, over 85% are women) this feels like a fitting tribute to end on, the lyrics potently highlighting the loss so many of us have faced this year, and the tenderness with which we feel about our loved ones whom we might not have been able to see for a while. Overall, it’s an enjoyable hour in the company of familiar, safe, jazz hands, and would be a lovely festive treat for the musical theatre fan in your life who is desperate to be back on, or sat in front of, the stages we all miss and love.

Review by Rebecca Rae

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: N/A - online | Price of Ticket: £15

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