Theatre Review: Ellis Dolan Sings Sondheim

Presented by Back2Back Short Show Festival
Reviewed 22nd October, 2021

As part of the Star Theatre’s annual Back2Back Festival, two properly-pronouned performers with wavy brown hair and glasses spent an hour performing the works of Stephen Sondheim in the intimate Theatre Two. What’s not to like? Jesse Green’s New York Times article last year, considering Sondheim the dramatist, stated “Having long taken for granted that he is the greatest composer-lyricist the United States has produced, we can perhaps now notice that he is also an artist to place in the line of America’s foundational 20th-century playwrights.”  So, we knew we were in for a dramatic hour of songs when Ellis Dolan (he/him) and Cadence Belperio (they/them) plucked eleven songs out of nine of Sondheim’s major music theatre shows and performed them for us. 

Singer Dolan, a tall, imposing person, looked as if he’d just rushed out of the office; grey suit, white business shirt, no tie, plain black shoes. Accompanist Cadence, although seated behind an electronic keyboard for the duration of the show, wore an intricately sequinned black-and-white jacket over an elegant beaded black-and-white top. Perhaps they should have swapped costumes… the singer needed to be front and centre of our focus. The disparity between their costuming styles highlighted a problem at the heart of this potentially excellent show. Were they going for a casual, chatty, “we’re all pals here” cabaret mood or a high-end elegant event making visual theatrical statements?

And so, to the performance. Dolan has a wonderful voice. He wasn’t entirely in command of it throughout the show. I suspect first-night nerves were to blame for the frequent intonation difficulties and the odd re-writing of Mister Sondheim’s melodic lines. It’s unfortunate that there are a horde of Sondheim geeks out there who know and cherish every detail of the writing. Dolan’s mid-voice holds incredible warmth and much potential for more sustained resonance. An unfortunate tendency to yell when singing in high range had the effect of precluding much acting nuance, even though Dolan maintained clear articulation throughout. If loudness becomes a singer’s focus, this can result in a “Never mind the quality, feel the width” philosophy. I would have gained more dramatic subtleties from these wonderful songs if a wider range of dynamics was employed.

Faster, passionate songs were sung loudly and with balled fists. Quieter, more reflective songs were rendered with at least one hand in trouser pockets. Patter between the songs was strongly personal, reflective of Dolan’s family, and his personal and professional development. Little of this information appeared to be news to the audience.

Song choices were excellent. Two from Evening Primrose, two from Company, material from A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, The Frogs, Saturday Night and Into the Woods. The breadth of material was enough to cheer any Sondheim fan. This cabaret has real entertainment potential at a high level. You don’t even need to be a Sondheim aficionado to enjoy the array of comic, dramatic and psychologically complex stories within these narrative songs.

And now, a word about the accompanist. Cadence Belperio is the associate artist every music theatre performer prays for. They do not simply play the piano; they react intuitively and continuously in response to the singer’s interpretative choices, whilst maintaining musical sense and consistent flow. Faithful to the composer’s intentions whilst constantly serving the singer’s needs, Cadence is a gem.

I should add that the first-night audience enjoyed the show. Dolan’s encore, “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company, was the best thing in the set. If the fearless, lively and subtly witty approach with which he sang this arch song had been applied to the rest of the programme, it would have been a ripper. There’s not a lot to do: edit the patter down, rework the song texts so that all the acting juice is extracted from them, decide on costume and visual impact, and this show will fly.

Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson

Venue:  Star Theatres: Theatre Two

Season: 22nd & 29th October, 2021

Duration: 1 hour

Tickets: $30:00

Bookings:  https://www.trybooking.com/events/landing?eid=808858&    

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