Composer and Lyricist: Stephen Sondheim
Director and Choreographer: Bill Deamer
Musical Director: Gareth Valentine
Reviewer: Scott Stait
In his 85th year Stephen Sondheim’s legacy is still burning bright in London’s West End. In aid of The Silver Line and the Stephen Sondheim Society, this glittering birthday Charity Gala Concert gave an airing to stars of stage and screen, past and present, across a multitude of classic songs as well as a few lesser-heard gems.
It is well known, and famously parodied by the man himself in Merrily We Roll Along, that Sondheim’s music is sometimes difficult on the ears and often “un-hummable,” however the selection of songs on offer provided a multitude of his more digestible works which did indeed please the packed Drury Lane Theatre, but never really challenged. The evening opened with a tongue-in-cheek number performed by the zany Kit and McConnel, who pointed a satirical finger at the audience and expressed their dislike for the music we were about to hear. Thankfully they appeared throughout the evening, providing some much needed comic relief and witty observations, as their feelings regarding Sondheim grew to affection by the close.
The remainder of the first half bubbled along rather tepidly until the arrival of the sharp-tongued Rosemary Ashe and Laura Pitt-Pulford in There’s Always A Woman, which kick-started the evening back into action with a wonderful bite. Tim Flavin and his ensemble of hell dwellers from ArtsEd continued with some impressive choreography by Bill Deamer in Hades and Rosemary Ashe’s return with a gripping The LastMidnightshowcased her powerful instrument in all its glory.
Nigel Catmur’s lighting design, although impressive throughout, hit a real high point during Daniel Evans and Anna Francolini’s tenderly poignant Move On where a light spattered gauze mimicked George Seurat’s style perfectly. This and the gloriously written Sundaythat followed proved the true highlights of the evening, and showcased both the company and the orchestra radiantly.
The second act reprised in a similar fashion, beginning with a comedic twist in the form of the exquisitely funny Martin Milnes and Dominic Ferris, whose crystal clear soprano (Milnes) and driving piano virtuoso (Ferris) crammed 33 Sondheim classics into just five minutes. It was unfortunate that many of the songs in this short piece weren’t heard in their entirety. In an incredibly impressive Can That Boy Foxtrot Bonnie Langford proved that she still has the skill and stamina to perform such acrobatic routines, and sizzled alongside the ever suave Anton Du Beke.
Closing the programme came a selection of ’11 o’clock Numbers,’ which included Tracey Bennett powering her way through Broadway Baby with wide-eyed optimism and punch, Kim Criswell and a perfect performance of I’m Still Here, and Michael Xavier in a touching appearance as Bobby with Being Alive which rounded the evening off brilliantly and proved that the best really should be saved ‘til last.
Gareth Valentine and his Concert Orchestra scored the evening with great skill and sensitivity, and despite the short rehearsal time managed to hold the evening together despite the numerous sound and balance issues. Introducing acts and lighting up the stage throughout the evening were an assembly of famous faces, including Nicholas Parsons, Anne Reid, Anita Dobson, Millicent Martin and Julia McKenzie whose presence raised smiles and the occasional applause from an appreciative audience.
As a Gala Concert celebrating the work of Stephen Sondheim Hey, Old Friends stayed on the tame side as regards song choice and rarely dipped a toe in the larger and more complex canon of his work, but remained a lighthearted evening which one hopes managed to raise some much-needed funds for the attached causes. So far as quenching a thirst for Sondheim, the programme didn’t entirely satisfy, but did whet the appetite in anticipation for the next revival, whatever that may be, to make its way into London.
Image: Darren Bell