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Top Form: Debra Byrne is back in business

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Debra Byrne

Debra Byrne

David Allen attended Debra Byrne’s triumphant return to cabaret in her new show RIPE…

It’s about 10:30 in the evening and the Factory Theatre is just beginning to empty. The electricity that accompanies any standing ovation is just about reaching its half-life and I am sitting on a lounge in the foyer watching as a large crowd of well-wishers talks to the lady who has been the evening’s central focus.

Debra Byrne looks radiant, graciously pleased and very happy to be talking to her audience. Following her return to the concert stage in Sydney after over 20 years the result has been fantastical. Those who attended the Factory Theatre Concert, Byrne’s one-woman show Ripe, know that it was that rare moment in the Australian biz when defining standards are set for what we consider to be a great performance.

The concert began with a slight hiccup. A twenty minute delay had the house abuzz – and I sat in the second row watching and waiting as the house filled, emptied slightly to accommodate that last drink and last cigarette, and then refilled as it was eventually announced that the concert would soon be underway.

Debra entered and set the evening off with a flourish – a truly astonishing re-arrangement of Australian rock legend Paul Kelly’s song ‘Just About to Break’. And with this tour-de-force, an emotional journey of powerhouse vocals, the tone was set.

I am beyond ecstatic to write that Debra Byrne is at the top of her vocal form – and her skills as a performer to hold an audience, to command a stage have ripened (pardon the pun) to perfection. As a concert, Ripe is a genuinely thrilling evening of entertainment. Byrne seamlessly guides her audience through a line-up of classic music theatre – including her own inimitable renditions of some of the genres greatest showstoppers.

"From Jerry Herman, through Lloyd-Webber to Sondheim, she is every bit the dynamic performer in concert as in a show"

From Jerry Herman, through Lloyd-Webber to Sondheim, she is every bit the dynamic performer in concert as in a show. The audience was reduced to tears through the classic torch ballad ‘Losing My Mind’ and brought again to their feet with the anthemic ‘With One Look’ – and that’s just for starters!

Debra then took us through a playlist of her own personal favourites, including a genuinely flawless rendition of James Taylor’s ‘Millworker’ and Carole King’s ‘Home Again’. And what a joy to see a voice so well matched with such fine material.

On stage, Byrne is effortless, very much at home. Her style is conversational, witty and wry and the audience responded with unrelenting warmth and pleasure. As Byrne states in a gloriously versed monologue she wrote specially for the show – life is ‘Ripe’ and ‘Full to the brim!’ And it shows. The final result was a standing ovation after a trio of showstoppers, ‘Memory’, ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ – and most delightfully of all, a rendition of the character themed rap song of Debra’s own creation ‘Feedin’ the Birds Yo’.

It seems while the cast stands on stage and sways during the prologue of Mary Poppins (her latest musical), the Bird Woman has been chilling to some R&B – and the result is absolutely hilarious and extremely well crafted.

"Her style is conversational, witty and wry and the audience responded with unrelenting warmth and pleasure."

Back to my position, reclining in the foyer of the Factory Theatre, watching Debra Byrne and glowing myself as I can see she is coming over to sit with me. She sits down, laughs (it’s been an evening personified by a great deal of laughter) as she tells me the delay at the beginning of the show was because her pianist – standing by looking sheepish – forgot his sheet music and had to have the hotel courier it in by taxi.

She has a small glass of white (she’s driving), smiles and says: “so what did you think”? And how can I respond? It is such a rare and magnificent thing to see an idol of your youth not only meet but exceed your highest expectations.

Ripe is here to stay and thank God! Stay tuned for updates as dates are set to be announced for performances of the show around Australia.

The year to come looks active indeed for Debra Byrne. Newly cast in the Channel Nine drama Tricky Business – set for a 2012 debut – and with Ripe set to tour, once again we will be seeing a lot more of Debra Byrne. It’s about time!

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David has written 177 articles on AussieTheatre
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