Jeremy Chapman reports back from the 11th annual Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year – a Sunday afternoon of Sondheim and new writing for the stage, performed by 12 of the UK’s best students of musical theatre.
There’s no stopping those glorious gals! Scots lass Izuka Hoyle made it four in a row for the fair sex at the prestigious Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year awards by following Corrine Priest, Erin Doherty and Courtney Bowman into the winner’s enclosure at a noisy Noel Coward Theatre.
Each of the 12 finalists brought college pals with them to cheer them on in the 11th SSSSPOTY competition and the partisan support when Master of Ceremonies Clive Rowe made his introductions created a tremendous buzz.
It was a total about-turn after the guys had run up a 6-1 lead with only 2010 winner Alex Young, one of this year’s judges and joining the cast of Follies in September (along with our 2008 winner Adrian Grove), interrupting male domination in the first seven years.
But now the girls are only one behind and on a roll after the exotic Hoyle’s not unexpected success which was rewarded with a £1,000 cheque presented by SSS patron Julia McKenzie. Arriving at ArtsEd three years ago on a Lloyd Webber scholarship, Hoyle graduates in September from that renowned seat of musical theatre training, is currently appearing in Working at Southwark and will shortly to join an A-list cast in her first feature film.
The Chiswick college had a field day with not only the winner but runner-up too in the deep-voiced Shaq Taylor whose towering presence dared you not to listen to him as he tore into Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany”. But it wasn’t quite enough to give him the nod over Hoyle, who as a past winner of the Young Scottish Musical Theatre Performer of the Year, is no stranger to stepping up to the podium. Here she wowed judges and audience with a beautiful interpretation of ‘Last Midnight’ from Into The Woods and we shall be following her progress closely.
“The Matchmaker” was her choice for the Best New Song competition that runs alongside the main event, but judges Stiles and Drewe awarded their prize to “Gerry and Me”, written by former London Theatre Workshop’s co-artistic director Tom Lees in harness with Claire Rivers and performed with great feeling by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s Georgia Frost.
For me, Frost struck the perfect balance with one witty song “The Worst Pies in London” and a sad one, the heart-breaking “Gerry and Me”. She was unlucky to get the worst of the draw by having to go on first and it was noticeable that those performing late in proceedings, in fact 11th, ninth and tenth, walked away with the three main SSSSPOTY prizes. Frost’s consolation was a cheque as singer of best new song created by a Mercury Musical Developments member.
The competition demanded one Sondheim number and one from the Best New Song list from each of the 12 finalists (chosen after audition from an entry of 79), and Taylor backed up “Epiphany” with the haunting “Apology To A Child” from Tricked by Tom Slade.
The SSSSPOTY accent is always on “performer”; it’s not just a singing contest – plenty of acting is required as well. The finalists generally took that message on board and the three-hour show finished appropriately and with a good laugh with the hyper-active Joe Wiltshire Smith all over the floor and using practically every foot of the stage for “Buddy’s Blues” and “Underneath”.
Some technical noises-off problem threatened to derail Verity Blyth’s 11 o’clock number “Losing My Mind” but the Bristol Old Vic student battled through the unwanted diversion like an old hand, compere Rowe rightly commending her bravery. Blyth switched from classic Sondheim to the humour of “I’m A Dunce”, a lovely piece by Marc Folan and Carl Miller which showed off her acting skills to advantage.
Nobody would have complained if third-placed Oscar Conlon-Morrey had been named the winner. This larger-than-life character in a bright red jacket has a huge stage presence and his take on Sweeney’s barber rival Pirelli in “The Contest” got everyone on-side. As it was, SSSSPOTY patron McKenzie came up with an unexpected £250 third prize for this Mountview graduate who splits his time between London and France and helps run an antiques shop in Limoges. McKenzie and chairman of the judges Edward Seckerson both remarked that this was the most talented collection of finalists in the 11-year history of the competition.
“The Contest” was an absolute riot and Conlon-Morrey’s new song choice, “Work To Do” by Ben Glasstone, winner of the Stiles and Drewe Mentorship award for Reanimator, could scarcely have been done any better. He has tremendous star potential.
Filling in the gaps while the jury was deliberating were last year’s winner Courtney Bowman, Michael Rouse (from Superhero) and Rowe himself but the undoubted highlight of that section was the brilliant double act Ferris and Milnes, who raced through 33 Sondheim numbers in five minutes in the hilarious party piece we first heard at 2016’s Stephen Sondheim Society gala at Drury Lane.
Earlier, Janie Dee’s patter song from Company, “Getting Married Today”, added to the afternoon’s fun as our nation-wide competition goes from strength to strength under the vigorous chairmanship of Craig Glenday.
Finally, a word for musical director Stephen Ridl1ey who accompanied the finalists so superbly. He had a busy time but not as busy as fellow pianist Malcolm Forbes-Peckham who had to look after the 79 contestants who auditioned in the spring.
Chris Hocking directed the show and the other finalists were Tom Blackmore, Emma Rendell, Rob Peacock, Georgia Richardson, Katie Buchholz and Jack Whittle. They were mostly terrific but the standard gets better year by year and even making it to the final these days is a feat.