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The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year

Izuka Hoyle and Julia McKenzie
Izuka Hoyle and Julia McKenzie

How does it take more than three hours to present five awards? Have twelve finalists sing two songs each, which itself justifies an interval, and ask a judging panel to decide who wins what while the audience is treated to yet more musical theatre performances. But that only takes care of three awards, in the cumbersomely titled ‘Stephen Sondheim Society & Mercury Musical Developments Student Performer of the Year 2017 & Stiles + Drewe Prize’. This should really read ‘Stiles + Drewe Prizes’ (plural), as there are now two, one for composition, the other for potential, namely Best New Song and the Mentorship Award. These two awards are judged separately from the live competition.

I’m not entirely sure why, but this year’s offerings saw performances, for the most part, rather hammed up than might normally be expected from performances of Sondheim’s material, which has a tendency to be nuanced and melodic. The opening ensemble number set up what was to follow very well, an almost painfully slow rendering of ‘Putting It Together’ from Sunday in the Park with George, though done this way, it did allow for ‘every word, every line’ (to quote the song itself) to be clearly enunciated.

These are, one has to accept, students still, and the nerves can sometimes be quite telling. As ever with a competition of this nature, taking on a lesser known tune can work to a finalist’s advantage, though this cultured audience knew to suspend disbelief and not think of the various other productions and concerts in which they would have heard, for instance, ‘Losing My Mind’ from Follies.

It is to Verity Blyth’s performance of ‘Losing My Mind’ I turn to first. As host Clive Rowe pointed out, there were ‘technical things’ that happened, namely that someone else’s microphone was turned on, so that the entire Noel Coward Theatre momentarily heard one side of a conversation. The mark of a great performer, Rowe continued, is to carry on when something like that happens, as though it never did. It is indeed a hallmark of professionalism, and Blyth’s performance is itself worthy of mention in any case, being one of the few that didn’t attempt to act out every line. There was a poise and confidence even in a music break.

Of course, sometimes a role calls for an all-out performance. Joseph Wiltshire-Smith rose to the occasion in ‘Buddy’s Blues’, also from Follies, the only finalist to make full use of the stage space available. To quote a poster outside the theatre for Half A Sixpence, the current resident show at the Noel Coward, it sent “the audience into raptures”.

The new songs featured increased my confidence in new British musical theatre. It has, generally speaking, taken a different path from the glitz and glamour of the Broadway musical. Most of the offerings here are a stand and deliver approach, where it is not possible to say much about the choreography because there isn’t any choreography to say much about. But these ones are intriguing, drawing the audience into the narrative even as stand-alone songs. Georgia Frost’s performance of ‘Gerry and Me’ by Tom Lees and Claire Rivers was an example of a tune heavy on plot and full of pathos, as far away from the traditional song and dance as possible but nonetheless as worthy winner of the Stiles + Drewe Best New Song 2017.

Too much of a big deal was made about Tom Blackmore taking on a song originally written for a female character, in ‘What’ll It Be’ by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan. I would not have noticed if it hadn’t been pointed out repeatedly. I felt it was entirely irrelevant; it was a perfectly good performance of a perfectly good song (well done, Tom Blackmore!), and quite why it couldn’t be appreciated for what it was is something I can’t get my head around. Perhaps the panel is unaware of David Suchet playing Lady Bracknell, Glenda Jackson playing the title role in a production of King Lear, and numerous other gender-blind castings. Ironically, while they had left the auditorium to deliberate, one of the musical numbers the audience was treated to was ‘Broadway Baby’, sung by host Clive Rowe but – as you know, it was originally written for a female character. Again, so what? It was most enjoyable as it was.

I won’t attempt an analysis of all 24 songs sung by the twelve finalists (between them, that is). No meaningful explanation was given as to how the judging panel arrived at their decisions, and as all of the finalists were very good, I simply accept their decisions in good faith. Oscar Conlon-Morrey, taking the third prize of £250 kindly donated by panellist Julia McKenzie, sang ‘The Contest’ from Sweeney Todd, commanding the stage on his own in a number that has only one singing part but would ordinarily require a number of characters present on stage (it wouldn’t be much of a contest if Pirelli had no-one else to compete with). It was convincing, it took some guts, and his performance of a new song, ‘Work To Do’ by Ben Glasstone, demonstrated an ability to portray courage in that second number as effortlessly as flamboyancy in the first.

I personally thought Shaq Taylor, winner of the second prize (£500, donated jointly by David Langrish and the Sarah Thorne Theatre in Broadstairs, and the Newsome family), could have been a tad more sinister as the title character in Sweeney Todd has his ‘Epiphany’. His performance of ‘Apology to a Child’ by Tom Slade, was utterly sublime, a simultaneously smooth and soaring number.

Izuka Hoyle, winning the Student Performer first prize of £1,000 (kindly donated by Tricia Sharpe and Ray Barker) did a worthy and well-controlled rendering of ‘Last Midnight’ from Into The Woods. The new song she performed, ‘The Matchmaker’ by Claire McKenzie and Scott Gilmour, quickly established a rapport with musical director Stephen Ridley, and then with the audience (and therefore with the judges) that lasted right to the end of the number, exhibiting a beautiful vocal belt without overdoing it, just the right balance.

At the interval, somebody remarked to me that they had hoped for more softer numbers in the second half, as we had quite a few full-throated performances in the first. My fellow theatregoer did not have his wish granted, but, on balance, it is better to hear and see clearly what is being sung and performed than having to strain our ears and eyes. Such was the positivity at this encouraging event, it became difficult to ascertain who was uplifting whom: the performers were thrilled by a heartened panel and a supportive audience, while the panel and audience where inspired by the performers. That’s just how an event like this should be.

By Chris Omaweng

Student Performer of the Year 2017: Izuka Hoyle
Second prize: Shaq Taylor
Third prize: Oscar Conlon-Morrey
Stiles + Drewe Best New Song 2017: ‘Gerry and Me’ by Tom Lees and Claire Rivers
Stiles + Drewe Mentorship Award 2017: Reanimator by Ben Glasstone

The Stephen Sondheim Society and Mercury Musical Developments annual West End Gala for
The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year and The Stiles + Drewe Prize
Hosted by Clive Rowe
Director: Chris Hocking
Musical director: Stephen Sondheim

11th June 2017 3pm
At Noёl Coward Theatre
St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4AU

The 12 finalists from performing arts schools around the country were selected to perform at the 2017 competition. The gala included a special performance by Olivier Award winner and guest judge Janie Dee – soon to be seen as Phyllis in Follies at the National Theatre and writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson Chaired the Student Performer judges together with legendary Sondheim interpreter Julia McKenzie to present the prize.

Judges: Rachel Kavanaugh (Half a Sixpence and The Wind in the Willows), Simon Lee (The Sound of Music, Tell Me On A Sunday), Alex Young (SSSSPOTY 2010 winner, Carousel at ENO), Dan Gillespie Sells (The Feeling, Everyone’s Talking About Jamie) and Giles Terera (soon to star as Aaron Burr in Hamilton).

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