To Barbra, With Love

To-Barbra-With-Love-Elise-McCann-photo-by-Nico-KeenanOriginally scheduled for Canberra in October 2022, this much anticipated celebration of the achievements of songstress, Barbra Streisand, finally arrived in Canberra for the last two concerts of its capital city’s tour.

Streisand’s career spans more than six decades and during that time she’s not only proven herself as an incomparable song stylist across stage, film and popular music, but also as a composer, director, writer and producer.

To Barbra, With Love concentrates on her singing career, with a selection of her most popular songs given fresh new arrangements by Nicholas Buc and performed by four of the country’s most accomplished and celebrated music theatre singers in Caroline O’Connor, Elise McCann, Katie Noonan, and for the Canberra concerts, Ainsley Melham, accompanied by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra conducted by the charismatic, Vanessa Scammell.

It was a shame therefore that the opening concert was plagued with poor sound balance between orchestra and vocalists, which often rendered the lyrics of the songs intelligible. This was particularly the case with opening song Putting it Together for which Sondheim himself had re-written the lyrics specifically for Streisand to perform on her Back to Broadway album.

On this occasion those lyrics were completely drowned out. Elsewhere the vocalists had to fight to be heard over the orchestra. This was a technical problem outside the control of either singers or orchestra, but certainly not expected during a concert of this magnitude.

Thankfully the balance did improve as the concert progressed, and there were moments when the details of the musical arrangements were astonishingly beautiful, especially for Elise McCann’s breath-taking interpretation of Papa Can You Hear Me composed for Streisand for her film Yentl, and Katie Noonan’s angelic styling of Somewhere from West Side Story.

Despite the sound problems there were many highlights. Stylishly directed by Cameron Mitchell, the songs followed each other with minimal interruption or explanation. The ladies each wore lavish gowns especially designed for the concert by Melbourne couturier, Linda Britten, who was also responsible for Ainsley Melham’s stylish outfits.

The lighting design by Peter Rubie effectively highlighted the soloists both vocal and instrumental, particularly notable for the duet, You Don’t Send Me Flowers superbly interpreted by Elise McCann and Ainsley Melham, and Caroline O’Connor’s touching interpretation of Send In The Clowns, another of the songs for which Sondheim varied the lyrics at Streisand’s request for her Broadway album.

The legendary Caroline O’Connor, who has thrilled audiences around Australia, as well as on Broadway and the West End, displayed her mastery of the Broadway showstopper with her dynamic performances of two songs from Funny Girl – the musical which brought Streisand to international attention, Don’t Rain on My Parade and the poignant, People.

Katie Noonan delighted with her superb vocal stylings especially in two songs by the Bee Gees, Woman in Love and the duet, Guilty for which she teamed with Ainsley Melham.

Melham, who has just finished a national tour of Cinderella, and who has previously played the lead in the Disney musical Aladdin in Australia, on Broadway and in the West End, demonstrated his versatility with  swinging versions of Happy Days are Here Again and Gotta Move.

Elise McCann, who won a Helpmann Award for her performance in the Tim Minchin musical Matilda, practically stopped the show with her rousing rendition of Before the Parade Passes By from Hello Dolly.

Whenever the sound balance found its correct level the Canberra Symphony Orchestra impressed with its versatility interpreting Nicholas Buc’s lush arrangements, capturing the authentic sound of the Broadway musical, the romantic mood of Streisand’s favourite ballads or the irresistible disco beat of Enough is Enough which brought the audience to its feet for the joyful finale.

To Barbara, With Love is a superbly produced and performed celebration of an extraordinary career. Therefore it was especially disappointing therefore that its penultimate performance in Canberra was marred by technical problems.

To Barbra, With Love
Canberra Theatre – Canberra Theatre Centre, Civic Square, Canberra
Performance: Friday 10 February 2023
Season continues to 11 February 2023

Image: Elise McCann – photo by Nico Keenan

Review: Bill Stephens OAM