Review: Sydney Symphony Orchestra delivers thoroughly entertaining tribute to George Michael at the Sydney Opera House (Until 8th July)

When the Sydney Symphony Orchestra first planned a concert series based on the music of George Michael, it was envisioned as a celebration marking 30 years since the release of his first solo album, Faith. But in December last year, Michael’s name was added to the heartbreakingly long list of stellar artists that were lost in 2016. The SSO’s George Michael: Praying for Time was reworked as a memorial to the late star, and it is a moving and celebratory tribute.

Headlined by David Campbell, Diesel, Sam Sparro and relative newcomer, Brendan Maclean, George Michael: Praying for Time traverses the artist’s solo catalogue, from Faith and Amazing to the lesser known Kissing a Fool and Monkey. Accompanying the SSO to bring a rock ‘n’ roll edge to the sound is a band led by Paul Gray (keyboards), and featuring John Bettison (guitar), Nikolas Pringardi (keyboard), Emile Nelson (bass guitar) and Gordon Rytmeister (drums).

All the hits are here, but so too are many numbers that were never released as singles. The show opens with a beautiful overture in which the first few strains of Careless Whisper cause the goosebumps to rise. Sadly, this is the only chance we get to hear the SSO on their own, and it’s an opportunity lost. While the vocalists are all extremely talented and deliver time and time again, it would have been nice to hear the orchestra take on a more complex number and make it their own.

The four headline performers each represent different facets of George Michael’s musical appeal. Campbell’s theatre talents showcase just how multi-dimensional Michael was, drawing influence from far beyond the pop realm where he got his start. In Kissing a Fool, Campbell gets a chance to show off his considerable cabaret chops, while Through and Careless Whisper allow his stunning vocals to interweave effortlessly with the orchestra.

In contrast, Diesel represents the rock guitarist that Michael first unleashed on his album’s title track. Diesel’s distinctive vocal and supreme talents with the guitar are given free rein on Father Figure, Look at Your Hands and Praying for Time. His duet with Campbell on Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, which closes the first act, is a highlight.

Sam Sparro has a funky, smooth, pop style that naturally suits Spinning the Wheel and Everything She Wants. His rendition of Jesus to a Child is hauntingly reminiscent of the late artist, despite the differences in their voices. Sparro embodies the mainstream appeal that made Michael a chart topper for over three decades.

The surprise packet of the evening is Brendan McLean, an unashamedly queer pop artist whose fabulous enthusiasm reminds us of Michael’s role as icon in the gay community. He brings camp choreography to every number, including Cowboys and Angels and Older, but does so without sacrificing his vocal performance. Not surprisingly, McLean and Sparro have been handed the honour of performing Outside and it is nothing short of outstanding.

Adding further character to the vocals are Jade MacRae, Gary Pinto, Carmen Smith and Natasha Stuart, who provide more than just back-up for the big stars. Pinto, in particular, is a standout.

And bringing depth and counter-melodies to every number are the SSO. At times the rock instruments and vocals dominate the soundscape, but this is a minor balance issue that will no doubt be fixed post-opening night. It would be nice to say that the orchestra breathes new life into the hits; rather, they expose the depth of musicality of an artist who could be easily dismissed as a pop star.

The songs are simply staged, with the orchestra front and centre on a blank stage, and the artists moving around the outside on a slanting rise. Simple, static projections onto a screen at the rear of the state are used to highlight certain numbers. It’s a shame in some ways, because Michael’s film clips are so iconic, but ultimately it means the focus has been placed squarely on the music.

The lighting, however is more impressive. Designed by Trent Suidgeest, the effect is what you would expect from a rock concert: think bright colours, swinging spotlights and swirling patterns. It creates just the right atmosphere and transports the audience from a symphonic performance to a stadium-esque rock show.

For those of us who grew up in the era of MTV and Countdown, George Michael was more than just a musician. He was an icon, who transformed before our eyes from one-half of a bright-eyed pop duo, to an edgy artist who refused to be pigeon-holed, to an unapologetic activist. This is what makes this tribute concert works so well – there is so much variety in Michael’s back-catalogue that there really is something for everyone. You don’t have to be a fan to enjoy this show, but if you are, then don’t miss out on this well-executed and truly enjoyable night out.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s George Michael: Praying for Time is running for four shows only, until Saturday 8th July. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended the performance on Thursday 6th July.

Photo credit Nathan Atkins, rehearsal 5th July. For more of this photo gallery, click here.