BWW REVIEW: Guest Reviewer Charles Sanders Shares His Thoughts On ELAINE PAIGE IN CONCERT

BWW REVIEW: Guest Reviewer Charles Sanders Shares His Thoughts On ELAINE PAIGE  IN CONCERT

Guest Reviewer Charles Sanders (Co Artistic Director House of Sand) shares his thoughts on Elaine Paige's Sydney Concert.
To lovers of Musical Theatre, and particularly of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elaine Paige was once one of the the quintessential musical theatre leading ladies. In the 80's she was Britain's First Lady of musical theatre, and in Australia - where our musical theatre obsessions vacillate between Broadway and the West End - she once rivalled Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, and the like for First Lady status. Her star has dimmed a little in the 21st century, as indicated by the only-just-more-than-half-filled house at the State Theatre on Thursday. At the age of seventy her live performance is certainly less contemporary but no less consummate.
The evening opens with a brief 40 minute set from The John G Smith Band - a group known to almost noone, but an incredibly tight ensemble of five excellent musicians. Smith's day job is as a conductor and musical director of musicals, including Beautiful, Les Mis and Fame - he tells the audience that Elaine saw his band play and immediately asked them to be her new band for this concert series. A brilliant backing band, their solo set is best called 'cute' - nerdy British blokes in their 40's and 50's playing old Billy Joel favourites and moderately comical (but only moderately accomplished) originals. I wondered if the band were wilfully plagiarising or blissfully ignorant of the fact that one original entitled "I Need To Think It Over" is all but exactly Simon & Garfunkel's "feeling groovy" with a different lyric. While enjoyable, the set is clearly there mostly to give the boys a little exposure, and to give the audience their money's worth in terms of 'minutes in the dark'.
After a short interval the audience get what they're really here for. Paige opens her 90 minute set with "Magic To Do" from Pippin and was received warmly by an audience who clearly had some strong nostalgia for their hayday, and their hero's. From here the evening spends a lot of time in nostalgia, though, somewhat surprisingly, less for the musicals of the 80's than for the singer-songwriter rock of the 60's and 70's. Apart from the opening number the main set includes just one other song from a musical - "I Know Him So Well" from Tim Rice and the ABBA Boys' "Chess", which loses a little by being sung as a solo, but is beautifully sung, and just a really excellent song - it's not surprising that it went to Number 1 in the UK.
Rather than sticking to the wheelhouse of her highest profile work Paige principally gives us a survey of the songs that have most inspired her, and which have most resonated with her own life. Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, and Burt Bacharach all get a look in, as does a beautiful ballad arrangement of Carol King's "One Fine Day".
Paige is at her best when simple, earnest and folksy in these numbers - giving us the kind of depth and engagement with the lyric that always separated her from her brasher American counterparts (Did someone say Patti LuPone?) and made her my personal preferred Evita. A couplet of songs dedicated to her family is particularly moving. She is a little less comfortable in angry or up-tempo numbers; with the exception of a wonderful Lennon/McCartney medley, in which she is so immersed in the music of her youthful heroes that all restraint evaporates and her enthusiasm is palpably infectious.
The audience had to wait until a double encore to get what most had clearly come for - "Memory" and "Don't Cry For Me Argentina". It was worth the wait. Paige has lost none of her vocal nuance with age, and gained even greater depth and authenticity of feeling. The big notes don't have quite the power they once had, but in 2019 her "Memory" obviously coms from a place of true feeling and personal experience. (For the true musical theatre nerds: It's comparable in guts and truth to Elaine Stritch's late-in-life rendition of 'I'm Still Here', though of course remains the inferior song). I thought "Memory" had been ruined for me forever by the litany of terrible renditions trotted out at every musical theatre concert, audition, and sing-along in recent history, but Paige was able to achieve the seemingly impossible and remind me why the song was such a hit to begin with. She is truly the sole master of the number. Her "Don't Cry For Me" has a similarly strong engagement with the lyric and depth of feeling and exemplifies that Paige absolutely still deserves her place in the cannon of great leading ladies.
A tender and surprisingly intimate concert, with just enough big belters to satisfy the musical theatre tragics, I'd encourage lovers of a beautifully rendered lyric, of intimate cabaret-style-anecdote-and-song, of any of the wongwriters featured, of Webber and Rice, and of course of Paige herself to keep their eye out for her next appearance in Sydney and make sure she gets the full house she didn't get tonight, and richly deserves. Her tour continues to Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.

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From This Author Jade Kops

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