The Aussie Pops Orchestra have celebrated more than 40 years of New Year’s Eve gala concerts at Art Centre Melbourne’s Hamer Hall.
Over three shows during the 30th and 31st of December, the 2023 edition of New Year’s Eve (& The Night Before Gala Concerts) directed and conducted by John Foreman, consisted of the talents of theatre superstars Marina Prior, Michael Cormick and Jemma Rix alongside the Dana Jolly Dancers, and Douglas ‘Uncle Doug’ Heywood and the Camberwell Chorale. With their powers combined, including a no less than 60-piece Aussie Pops Orchestra making the headcount on stage easily over 100 people, these gala concerts successfully provided to the lucky patrons that nabbed tickets, access to the most spectacular new year’s celebration in Melbourne.
Admittedly, I had heard of the Aussie Pops Orchestra New Year’s Eve Gala Concerts before yet had never attended one, so everything was new to me. What would the gala concert be like? Is there audience participation? What do you even wear to such an event?
I had hoped that Prior, Cormick and Rix would perform some musical theatre songs that were essentially their signatures songs throughout their careers, but what this talented line-up actually showcased was far greater and more spectacular than anything I ever expected.
After entering the venue and being given a free program book, available thanks to the various generous sponsors of the event, I eagerly took my seat and was genuinely excited to see what the night would unfold. Guided and essentially MC hosted by the incomparable John Foreman, the Aussie Pops Orchestra kickstarted with Shostakovich’s ‘Festival Overture’ before our theatre trio made an appearance to sing Irving Berlin’s ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ together.
Throughout the night, Melbourne audiences were gifted and serenaded with wonderful music numbers, and not all of them with musical theatre origins! Quite possibly the most pop moment of the night from the setlist was when Jemma Rix took on the Titanic movie famed Céline Dion ballad ‘My Heart Will Go On’.
The Roy Orbison and co-penned Joe Melson 60s classic ‘Crying’ sounded incredible and looked even better with Michael Cormick’s suave looks and smooth vocals. While Cormick performed three solos throughout the night including Jekyll & Hyde musical famed ‘This Is The Moment’ as well as ‘Feelin’ Good’, written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, and recently revived on the pop charts by Michael Bublé, ‘Crying’ was the standout solo performance from Cormick. The Hamer Hall audience quietly captivated by Cormick’s rendition; you could hear a pin drop.
Marina Prior stunned with a collection of gorgeous Linda Britten gowns that she changed into throughout the night and music wise with an exquisitely enchanting traditional Celtic medley, the highlight of her solos. Prior also performed ‘I Have Confidence’ from The Sound of Music, and the catchy jazz filled ‘It’s Better With a Band’.
Taking on two duets, Prior performed Carol King’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ with Jemma Rix and their voices melded together beautifully. But Prior sounded even more incredible (if that were humanly possible) during the jaw-dropping duet with Cormick.
Prior and Cormick have performed in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera during their career with Prior playing the role of Christine and Cormick playing her lover Raoul. However, the pair were never in the same production with Cormick performing, at the time, in London, and Prior performing the titular role in Australia. So, when Prior and Cormick came together to perform the lover’s duet, the experience was phenomenal and something that many Phantom fans could only dream of witnessing and hearing live.
Other collaborations included Cormick and Rix performing ‘The Prayer’ made famous by Céline Dion and Andrea Bocelli, the Aussie Pops Orchestra combining forces with the Dana Jolly Dancers to perform a neat tribute to Fred Astaire, and the Camberwell Chorale performing with the Aussie Pops Orchestra an almost healing cover of Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’.
Jemma Rix has been a theatre favourite of mine over the years. While I thoroughly enjoyed her in Disney’s Frozen as Elsa and her performance during the gala concert of the Disney princess anthem ‘Let It Go’, it was her performance ‘Defying Gravity’ that really blew me away. I must confess, I’m a huge Wicked fan, and it was so wonderful to hear Rix soulfully and emotionally take on the role of Elphaba again for this number. I even became a bit teary during the songs as it’s been such a long time since I’ve seen Wicked, it’s one of my favourite musicals, and it was a blessing to hear Rix perform the song again before the third professional production of the musical visits Melbourne this year.
Despite the event being a fancy gala concert, you don’t have to dress up as much if you don’t want to, but considering the event is to bring in the new year, it doesn’t hurt to dress for the occasion. Audience participation is quite minimal yet still superbly fun. Patrons seated at the front of each tier of Hamer Hall were even lucky to be given streamers to throw at the end of the night. Sadly, I was not seated close enough to be given one to throw, but streamers did land on me during the encore, haha!
The highlight of the night was when John Foreman conducted the audience to clap along during the encore. The cheeky smiles of glee that Foreman gave the audience when we participated and happily clapped in time to the music was met with satisfaction on both ends. Honestly, the genuine joy on Foreman’s face was infectious, igniting smiles across the venue.
Overall, the 2023 New Year’s Gala Concert was a magical experience filled with wonderful songs, music, and even more streamers! Although traditionally held every year, each concert is unique depending on the guests. I can’t believe this is something I had never attended before and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
If you don’t want to be stuck in the city during the New Year’s celebrations, there is an evening concert the night before and a matinee show (we attended this one) on New Year’s Eve. If you prefer to attend the late session on New Year’s Eve, you have the option via the Arts Centre Melbourne website to upgrade your experience to have a special place to obtain nibbles and gain an excellent vantage point to witness the fireworks in the city. I understand the event is now over but this is definitely something everyone needs to keep their eyes peeled for in future.
Hands down, whether you are an avid theatre fan or just love a good concert, the Aussie Pops Orchestra New Year’s Gala Concerts are by far the best way to bring in the new year in Melbourne.
For more information on this specific concert, the 2024 Aussie Pops Orchestra season and ticketing, visit:
Photography by Heidi Victoria.