Saturday, February 11, 2023

TO BARBRA WITH LOVE - An 80th Birthday Celebration.


Executive Producer and Creator – Mark Sutcliffe

Conducted by Vanessa Scammell – Directed by Cameron Mitchell

Lighting Design by Peter Rubie – Audio Engineered by Des O’Neill

Canberra Theatre 10th and 11th February 2023.

Performance on 10th February reviewed by Bill Stephens

Originally scheduled for Canberra in October 2022, this much anticipated celebration of the achievements of songstress, Barbra Streisand, finally arrived in Canberra for the last two concerts of its capital city’s tour.  

Streisand’s career spans more than six decades and during that time she’s not only proven herself as an incomparable song stylist across stage, film and popular music, but also as a composer, director, writer and producer.

Caroline O'Connor in "To Barbra With Love"

“To Barbra With Love” concentrates on her singing career, with a selection of her most popular songs given fresh new arrangements by Nicholas Buc and performed by four of the country’s most accomplished and celebrated music theatre singers in Caroline O’Connor, Elise McCann, Katie Noonan, and for the Canberra concerts, Ainsley Melham, accompanied by The Canberra Symphony Orchestra conducted by the charismatic, Vanessa Scammell.

It was a shame therefore that the opening concert was plagued with poor sound balance between orchestra and vocalists, which often rendered the lyrics of the songs unintelligible. This was particularly the case with opening song “Putting it Together” for which Sondheim himself had re-written the lyrics specifically for Streisand to perform on her “Back to Broadway” album.

On this occasion those lyrics were completely drowned out. Elsewhere the vocalists had to fight to be heard over the orchestra.  This was a technical problem outside the control of either singers or orchestra, but certainly not expected during a concert of this magnitude.

Elise McCann in "To Barbra With Love"

Thankfully the balance did improve as the concert progressed, and there were moments when the details of the musical arrangements were astonishingly beautiful, especially for Elise McCann’s breathtaking interpretation of “Papa Can You Hear Me” composed for Streisand for her film “Yentl”, and Katie Noonan’s angelic styling of “Somewhere” from “West Side Story”.

Despite the sound problems there were many highlights. Stylishly directed by Cameron Mitchell, the songs followed each other with minimal interruption or explanation. The ladies each wore lavish gowns especially designed for the concert by Melbourne couturier, Linda Britten. .

The lighting design by Peter Rubie effectively highlighted the soloists both vocal and instrumental, particularly notable for the duet, “You Don’t Send Me Flowers” superbly interpreted by Elise McCann and Ainsley Melham, and Caroline O’Connor’s touching interpretation of “Send in The Clowns”, another of the songs for which Sondheim varied the lyrics at Streisand’s request for her Broadway album.

The legendary Caroline O’Connor, who has thrilled audiences around Australia as well as on Broadway and the West End, displayed her mastery of the Broadway showstopper with her dynamic performances of two songs from “Funny Girl”, the musical which brought Streisand to international attention, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and the poignant, “People”.   

Katie Noonan in "To Barbra With Love"

Katie Noonan delighted with her superb vocal stylings especially in two songs by the Bee Gees, “Woman in Love” and the duet “Guilty” for which she teamed with Ainsley Melham.

Ainsley Melham

Melham, who has just finished a national tour of “Cinderella”,  and who has previously played the lead in the Disney musical “Aladdin” in Australia, on Broadway and in the West End,  demonstrated his versatility with  swinging versions of  “Happy Days are Here Again” and “Gotta Move”, while Elise McCann, who won a Helpmann Award for her performance in the Tim Minchin musical “Matilda”, practically stopped the show with her rousing rendition of “Before the Parade Passes By” from “Hello Dolly”.

Whenever the sound balance found its correct level the Canberra Symphony Orchestra impressed with its versatility interpreting Nicholas Buc’s lush arrangements, capturing the authentic sound of the Broadway musical, the romantic mood of Streisand’s favourite ballads or the irresistible disco beat of “Enough is Enough” which brought the audience to its feet for the joyful finale.

“To Barbara With Love” is a superbly produced and performed celebration of an extraordinary career. Therefore it was especially disappointing that its penultimate performance for Canberra audiences was marred by technical problems.


                                                Hero image by Peter Rubie.

                  Caroline O'Connor, Katie Noonan, Elise McCann  images by Nico Keenan

                                    Ainslie Melham image by Gerrit Fokkema.

      This review also published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.