Director: Hannah Chissick
As it celebrates its 15th year, the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year may have the longest show name in the West End, but it also has a track record to match. Previous winners have included Taron Egerton, Courtney Bowman and Erin Doherty, with finalists including Cynthia Erivo and Oscar Conlon-Morrey, and as a result this year the judges had to sift through over 250 applications to arrive at this year’s 12 finalists.
Returning to the apt venue of the Sondheim Theatre, this year’s final is the first to be hosted by another former winner. Alex Young, who picked up the prize in 2010, has gone from strength to strength since, most recently in the Sheffield Theatres/National Theatre production of Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Her natural gift for comedy, put to such great use in Southwark Playhouse’s 2022 revival of Sondheim’s bizarre Anyone Can Whistle, is also perfect for hosting duties, making the event – which, with 24 competition songs plus guest performances, is not short – fly by.
Opening and interval performances from the young cast of National Youth Music Theatre’s production of Merrily We Roll Along, coming to Southwark Playhouse Elephant in August, highlights some young performers who could well become SPOTY finalists in future years.
But the key section of the day is, of course, the finalists’ performances themselves. And this year it does feel as if most singers chose to stay in the slower, more emotional-but-with-a-power-belt moment subgenre of Sondheim’s catalogue. And so we are presented with a programme including no less than three numbers from Evening Primrose and cut numbers from Company and Assassins (both of which demonstrate that their excision improved each show).
All the singers perform such numbers well, although sometimes one wonders if the balance between performing the mood of each song and showcasing the actor’s ability has tipped a little too far into the latter. There are some standouts, though: Emily Botnen’s Everybody Loves Louis from Sunday in the Park with George and Pétur Svavarsson singing I Wish I could Forget You from Passion manage to extol the virtues of both song and singer.
In previous years, performers who have chosen a slow Sondheim number have chosen to pair it with an upbeat contemporary song to show their range. That’s less obvious here than in other years, but there are still some gems to delight. There’s still quite a narrow field of choices, though – while it is always a delight to hear numbers from Alex James Ellison’s musical Fiver, Ritesh Manugula’s I’ll Write a Song for You following so soon after Harry Lake gives a smashing rendition of My Day that, again, one yearns for a little variety.
It is the final trio of finalists who ultimately demonstrate the breadth of genre that this competition demonstrates in its best moments. Isobel Twist kicks off staying in the big solo number (Losing My Mind from Follies) but this is followed up by Harry Warburton performing Class from Sondheim’s early musical Saturday Night. It’s a song which encapsulates everything the composer would offer in later productions: social commentary, humour, and the opportunity to give the singer their moment on stage. Warburton capitalises upon that with a rendition that may inspire others to rediscover the musical. The final performer of the last trio is Milly Willows, producing a performance of Sweeney Todd’s The Worst Pies in London that emphasises the comedy and nails every bit.
And these final three contemporary songs work better to demonstrate the performers’ breadth. Twist and Willows perform excellently, with Nobody from Betty Blue Eyes and A Story of My Own from The Clockmaker’s Daughter,respectively. But it is Warburton’s perforce of Infinity from The Blackfriars Boys by Sarah Middleton and Josh Sneesby, a song extolling the virtues of storytelling on stage, that chimes particularly well with the whole point of the evening.
As the judges ponder their verdict, we are treated to some entertainment from Young, who gives a spiritedly humorous performance of the title number from Sunday in the Park with George, the song that saw her take the crown in 2010. That’s a hilarious rendition, but it eclipsed in the humour stakes when she is joined on stage by Ellie Nunn. The duo’s increasingly frenetic performance of There’s Always a Woman, cut from Anyone Can Whistle) deservedly brings the house down. We are also treated to test year’s winner, Desmonda Cathabel, reprising her winning song, A Little Night Music’s The Miller’s Son. In the year since winning, it is heartening to see that her performance style has only got stronger: it augurs well for someone who deserves a long career in musical theatre.
As the afternoon wraps up, the winner is justly announced as Milly Willows, whose performance as Mrs Lovett really does excel. And with the encore of her winning song, Willows sends us home with the broadest of pie-filled grins on our faces.
Reviewed on 11 June 2023.