An Evening with Anthony Warlow (QPAC and Queensland Symphony Orchestra)
Thanks to the pandemic, one of Australia’s biggest voices went silent on stage for two years.
“It’s nice to be in Brisbane,” said the National Living Treasure, greeting its first-night audience. “It’s nice to be anywhere.” Especially since this event, commissioned by the Brisbane Festival for last September, had to be postponed until now.
Warlow has had the distinction of being consistently popular and critically acclaimed over the past four decades for his rare versatility spanning opera, musical theater and concert. Australian audiences took him to their hearts in 1990 as our original Phantom of the Opera in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s eponymous blockbuster. He made history in 2012 as Australia’s first direct cast in a Broadway-originating production, when he was asked to play Daddy Warbucks in Anne in New York, after performing the role on an Australian tour.
The Fairfax headline “Bald, 50 and Ready for Broadway”, which this program cites, was in line with Warlow’s own self-deprecating observation, but was seen as the theatrical equivalent of bringing coals to Newcastle .
While we know his work well, the man – under his spell and wit in media appearances – not so much. Aside from the battle with cancer that shocked Australians just two years after his role as Phantom, as he prepared to star in the production arena of Jesus Christ Superstar, he kept his private life largely secret. The opportunity to learn more about the man behind Phantom and his many other “masks” – including the demon barber Sweeney Todd, Dr Zhivago, Tevye in fiddler on the roof and Jekyll and Hyde – through never-before-seen anecdotes, was undoubtedly an added draw for fans.
The star himself was a key creator of An Evening with Anthony Warlow, directed by Peter J Adams, who specializes in creating limited opportunities for audiences to hear world legends and icons in a conversational setting. Among the wide range of personalities he has featured are Dame Julie Andrews, Jane Fonda, Sir David Attenborough, Dr Michael Mosley, Professor Brian Cox and Sir Michael Palin.
The program is a combination of concert and fireside chat with ABC Classic’s Christopher Lawrence. More literally, it’s by the Pye stereo set – the one disguised as a cabinet with a wooden cover – and a phantom light. This night light ensures that a theatrical space is never completely dark, Warlow explains, adding that Broadway has generally continued the tradition. (When COVID-19 shut down the industry globally, it was revived around the world as a symbol of theater’s return.)
This intimate nostalgia provides the context for the program’s time travel, tracing key moments in the development of an aspiring artist. We learn that – unsurprisingly – the gifts that set Warlow apart as a performer also did so as a child in Wollongong.
While other children might have had more rudimentary activities, the four-year-old sang (as loudly as possible) for entertainment, and around age seven he decided he wanted to be an opera singer because he “liked the histrionics”. It was at this age that the future star was recorded covering Harry Secombe’s hit This is my song, written by Charlie Chaplin, sharing it with us to prove he was serious about singing loud. And when other teens from ‘The ‘Gong’ were probably in Led Zeppelin, Warlow’s debut album was Mozart’s The magic flute. Excerpts from it and Figaro’s wedding provide three languages in three songs – and some jokes.
By developing his innate talent for mimicry and imitation, he would put on his Al Jolson white altar gloves. After revisiting Jolson’s 1918 song Rock-a-Bye your baby with a Dixie tuneWarlow, now 60, can’t help but give us some fun and compelling performances as Michael Crawford, Jimmy Cagney, Cary Grant and Marlon Brando – though these may have been lost to the stars. younger fans.
A fascination with the voyage of discovery has carried him through his career, facilitating a range of characters that are every bit as incredible as his voice. He reveals that he became something of a junior Laurence Olivier, experimenting with make-up and tools like fake noses, and reveling in portraying old men such as Don Quixote when he was 18 and 80. In addition to the introductory number of Don and the impossible dream from Man from La Manchahe offers us another in his geriatric arsenal: the Lord Chancellor in the aptly named nightmarish song by Gilbert and Sullivan Iolanthethe patter’s plethora of lyrics is a lingual minefield.
Another gem reveals his development from the Phantom, his most beloved role. (That’s indisputable, from the “mm”s of pleasure audibly recorded among the audience recording the opening notes of music of the nightto rapturous and prolonged applause at the end of a sea of clapping hands held aloft.)
As the fifth ghost in the world, he was given permission to lose the character’s ugly drooping mouth so that, disguised by his mask, the “gargoyle” would look perfect.
Warlow is as adept at telling these stories as he is through song – painting a vivid picture with attention to detail and wry observation. But for all the insight and laughter from his banter with Lawrence, some might find the scripted exchanges too flashy.
Apart from the slightest hint of nervousness in the first two issues (Willie Wonka’s pure imagination and Following from Cane Mondo), Warlow was quickly back in consummate performer mode, put at ease by having the backing of longtime collaborator Vanessa Scammell helm the QSO to lavish effect.
Perhaps more nerve-wracking for the leading man than the long absence from an audience was the focus on his relationship with special guest Amanda Lea LaVergne, his co-star in that 2012 Broadway production. Anne and off-stage partner.
The talented triple threat realized broadway baby from Follies in act 1 and Kiss me Kateit is Much too hot in the second.
Her appearance could have been included as purely professional without further explanation, but instead it’s an opportunity to invite the public into her private life by showcasing her American love to Australian fans.
While Lawrence twice mentions the chemistry leading to their romantic involvement, Warlow avoids specifics other than saying “we started a great relationship.” This discussion is the only time Warlow appears out of his comfort zone.
LaVergne is comfortable answering Lawrence’s questions about roles that required her dance and gymnastic skills, and feasting on Warlow’s culinary talents. She brings the bright animation that underpins her performances to these domestic descriptions, and roasts her only failure in the kitchen – a Basque cake that has onomatopoeically collapsed. The segment leads to a more relaxed and fun reciprocal interaction between them, providing a Anne mixed.
In addition to altering the dynamics, fluidity and rhythm of the show, the triangulated emphasis on LaVergne also influenced the song choices, which will have disappointed some. For example, the recall presents the pair in duet with the melancholy Again from On the city while a signature song that would have been a perfect statement for this comeback – It is time of his last role in jekyll and hyde – is omitted.
Instead, the vocal climax is the first three numbers from Act 2: Sweeney Todd My friendsa deliciously macabre tribute to his razors, music of the nightand Stars from Wretched, which he recorded 30 years ago but had never performed live before. (The song is by Javert while Warlow originated Enjolras in the Australian production.)
The seven and a half minutes Soliloquy from 1945 Carousel seems a less obvious choice than any number of role songs Warlow is known for, but he does it brilliantly, conjuring up a vivid image with his richly hued expression.
Although Warlow recorded the album Back in the swing in 1993, arranged by the late maestro Tommy Tycho, the medley didn’t hit the mark as one would have hoped. Overall, it’s a program that I think will have resonated the most with older fans.
At the end of this two-hour journey through Warlow’s life in song, we learned what made him the artist he is — and that’s who people connect with. He largely preserved the mystique of the man behind the performer, other than sharing his deep gratitude for his audience and the sustenance he provided during the enforced break from testing. Judging by the collectively spontaneous standing ovation, the cheers and their reluctance to leave, it’s safe to say they missed each other as well.