Gielgud Theatre, London
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Devised by Cameron Mackintosh
Directed by Matthew Bourne and Julia McKenzie
Much of Old Friends, Cameron Mackintosh’s lovingly curated tribute to Stephen Sondheim is a masterclass in musical theatre. Over 2 1/2 hours and 40 songs, some of the West End’s finest sing a selection of Sondheim’s compositions that spans decades.
Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga have been flown in from the USA to headline the show. Salonga of course won numerous awards creating the role of Kim in Miss Saigon in London back in 1989 and later in New York. Since then however, her impact over here has been muted. Peters, albeit a Broadway legend and arguably Sondheim’s one-time muse, is less well known in the UK outside of musical cognoscenti and other than as a sincere and profound tribute to the composer it is hard to understand her bill-topping status. There are moments in the evening that leave one reflecting that some of Peters’ numbers could perhaps have been better delivered by other members of this star-studded ensemble.
If Arthur Miller was America’s leading light in late twentieth-century drama, mercilessly exploring and exposing the human condition, then Sondheim was his match in musical theatre. Interestingly and notwithstanding Sondheim’s genius, he never created (nor possibly may have never sought to create) a show of the juggernaut, franchisable or (as Stephen Schwartz may have called it) “popular” status garnered by say Cats, Phantom of The Opera, Les Misérables or Wicked. That being said, when Old Friends is at its best it offers magical moments of perfect performance.
Highlights of the evening include: a gorgeous pairing of Salonga with Jeremy Secomb as Mrs Lovett and Sweeney Todd for a selection of that show’s favourites; an outstanding ensemble take on A Weekend In The Country with a shout-out for Janie Dee’s brilliant interpretation of Countess Charlotte Malcolm, nailing the comic potential of her few lyrics perfectly. Joanna Riding, with superb support from Damian Humbley cynically sparkles in Getting Married Today as does Bonnie Langford’s in a breathtaking I’m Still Here. Clare Burt, a late arrival to the cast, gives a magnificent irascibility to The Ladies Who Lunch. The first half ends with an uplifting full-ensemble delivery of Sunday from Sunday In The Park With George, with Peters assuming the position of the parasol-bearing Dot. Considering that Sondheim possibly created that role with Peters in mind, the moment and the staging is one of a rare and special theatrical beauty.
Kicking off the second half, the overture from Merrily We Roll Along offers another glimpse of Sondheim’s musical talent, while a seamless segue into a small medley from West Side Story reminds us of his skill way back as a much younger writer. The Gypsy inclusions of You Gotta Getta Gimmick and Everything’s Coming Up Roses are also delightful.
Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear direct and choreograph respectively, coaxing immaculately presented iterations of each song. Julia McKenzie, another of Sondheim’s close and wise associates is co-credited as director. The whole affair is staged with a smart simplicity, Alfonso Casado Trigo’s orchestra elegantly placed upstage.
Opportunities to see a company of this calibre do not come along often. Go see Old Friends!
Runs until 6th January 2023
Photo credit: Danny Kaan