One of the most remarkable and noteworthy young musical theatre performers of recent years is currently out on tour across the UK and Ireland as Julie Atherton takes on the role of Sister Mary Robert in Sister Act. The show is currently at the Manchester Opera House and continues touring until July 2012. Having enjoyed a West End run at the London Palladium with Patina Miller (now recreating the lead role of Deloris on Broadway) and costarring Sheila Hancock and Ian Lavindar, the tour of Sister Act features Cynthia Erivo, Denise Black and Michael Stark alongside Atherton. Sister Act is, at first glance, an unusual career choice for a lady of Atherton’s obvious talent, although she gets a great solo number in The Life I Never Led. Atherton is well known in West End circles for her involvement and commitment to new musical theatre writing – she was a founder member and headlined a series of Notes from New York concerts alongside her good friend, producer and actor Paul Spicer (and the one-time regularity of this concert series is now much missed in a recession hit West End), also starring in short runs of The Last Five Years and Tick Tick Boom in London. Indeed, I last saw her in a phenomenal performance in a show called Ordinary Days (by the American writer Adam Gwon) at the Trafalgar Studios earlier this year where she delivered what used to be called the ‘eleven o’clock’ number in musicals, in a moment that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and tears come into my eyes. Her rendition of Portrait of a Princess – a song by talented new musical theatre writer Michael Bruce – has now had over 100,000 hits on YouTube in a surreal, hilarious and imaginative video recording, and a recent solo concert at the Apollo Theatre contained gems from her two solo recordings. All this without appearing in a TV talent show contest or reality TV show.

Atherton is, in many ways, the epitomy of an imaginative musical theatre performer who genuinely deserves greater public recognition. Such recognition will surely come in time, with even more high profile roles, concerts and recordings. Interestingly, her career thus far has been a mix between the one-off events and short runs of new shows to longer runs in shows such as Fame and Mamma Mia early on in her career and more recently in the original London cast of the cult Avenue Q, in which she completed two runs and gained a young musical theatre fan club to boot. Atherton played Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut in her ‘breakthrough’ appearance in Q, giving what many would describe as the definitive performance in those roles. She tweets, she teaches and she also gives master classes. Perhaps the one thing that surprises me about Atherton’s CV is that it features so little Sondheim as one feels that she would be completely at home with his music. Can you imagine her, for example, tacking a song such as Marta’s Another hundred people from Sondheim’s Company, or wringing every emotion out of Mary in Merrily We Roll Along or Dot in Sunday in the Park with George? Potential producers of those shows, please take note. And Chichester Festival should get her back there to do a follow-up after her Kolokolo bird in Stiles and Drewe’s Just So a few years ago – she would have been ideal for She Loves Me this year.

Funnily enough, another West End star who is no stranger to the work of Stephen Sondheim is appearing in a rather different concert at the Playhouse Theatre this weekend (Sunday 9 October). Triple Olivier Award winner Maria Friedman – who, like Atherton, made a career in her early days playing more interesting roles in small scale shorter runs, juxtaposed with longer runs in more commercial successes – is to appear with Oscar, Grammy, Tony and Emmy award winner Marvin Hamlisch in an evening of his music. The programme is set to feature music from A Chorus Line through to James Bond and anything in between. Friedman’s considerable success in the solo field has been well documented – her mid-summer solo concert in London’s St Jude’s Proms was reviewed here on Musicast – and she also appeared in the recent English National Ballet show Strictly Gershwin at the Royal Albert Hall. Friedman has always been a great interpreter of song (old or new) and makes the audience hone in on the lyrics in a way that few others can. Go and see her with Hamlisch this week......and catch Atherton on her UK tour too – both these sisters in musical theatre are a class act.