Monday 26 October 2015

Hey Old Friends: An 85th Birthday Tribute to Stephen Sondheim

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London

The Company

A concert of this sort – large numbers of quite well known people along with full backstage back-up giving their services for charity (Esther Rantzen’s Silver Line) on a Sunday evening usually succeeds on adrenaline and goodwill and this one was no exception. With people such as Julia McKenzie, Nicholas Parsons, Sally Ann Triplett and Michael Xavier on stage you can’t really go too far wrong.

High spots included an entertaining and very clever top speed medley number by the astonishingly talented Martin Milnes and Dominic Ferris who say they pack 33 songs into less than five minutes although I didn’t actually count. Then there was the ageless, still elegantly outrageous Millicent Martin with the hilarious and impeccably articulated and timed “I never do anything twice”. Astonishing Bonnie Langford, now 51 – yes, 51 – can still sing perfectly while simultaneously dropping into the splits and later being suspended upside down by Anton Du Beke with whom she flirts outrageously in “Can that boy Foxtrot!” Also good fun is the pretend anti-Sondheim pastiche at the beginning by Kit and McConnel who kept it going as an intermittent running gag throughout the show. Haydn Gwynne did well with “Send in the Clowns” too – a different rendering from the more familiar Judi Dench one but moving with Daniel Evans as the recipient. Evans sings “Pretty Lady” nicely too with Simon Green and Michael Peavoy - how many canons are there in musical theatre? One of the things which stuck me forcibly at this concert is Sondheim’s remarkable range, versatility and ongoing originality. He’s still going strong at 85 and steering clear of all stylistic ruts.

At the centre of all this – and it’s literally centre stage with many exits and entrances taking place from behind and alongside it – is a full and very fine orchestra conducted by MD, Gareth Valentine and that makes a real difference. The show is also enhanced by the fine ensemble backing of students from Arts Educational Schools London who sing magnificently as they gather first class experience on stage with the pros.

Of course a concert of this sort is assembled and rehearsed in a very short time so it is never going to be perfect. There were too many mics around the orchestra so that sometimes the sound balance was wrong and singers were struggling to be heard. And the celebratory excitement of the event notwithstanding, at three full hours the show was too long and would have been better with at least one item cut from each half. We all know how lighting designers love stage smoke because they can beam pretty colours through it and get spectacular effects easily. Here it was overdone to the point of irritation.

Also puzzling, given the number of participants is that there weren’t more Very Big Names in the cast. Maria Friedman, Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball, for example, were conspicuous by their absence.

Guest reviewer: Susan Elkins

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