CentralReview

Sondheim: Broadway Baby – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Reviewer: James Garrington

Conductor: Martin Yates

They dimmed the lights on Broadway and in the West End when Stephen Sondheim died in November 2021. The world had lost a man who arguably defined musical theatre in the second half of the 20th century, and he left behind a prodigious catalogue of work created over the course of a career lasting nearly 70 years.

With such an output, anyone trying to create a concert celebrating his work will find the biggest challenge is what to include, and what to leave out – but this CBSO concert has something for everyone, with a good mix of more popular and less well-known material. Alongside the orchestra we have four vocalists who have a long list of West End shows to their names, and together they present a good tribute to the great man.

We begin not at the beginning, but with a show part way through Sondheim’s career. There’s little to match a good overture and Follies surely ranks up there with the best, an ideal piece to show off the large orchestra on stage for this performance. There’s more to the show than just the overture of course, and we also hear Louise Dearman with Would I Leave You?, a burning, almost vicious rendition of the answer to her character’s husband asking for a divorce. This is classic Sondheim, with the contrast of the lyric and the almost romantic waltz of the music. Then we have the reminder of the determination needed to find work on Broadway with Caroline Sheen and the popular Broadway Baby.

Moving away from Broadway, Company is a show that many people can relate to. The opening number buzzes with energy, and here Dearman and Sheen are joined by Nadim Naaman and Jeremy Secomb. We also get to enjoy Naaman’s version of Being Alive, demonstrating his fine voice in the realisation that having someone to share your life with is a good thing. Then demonstrating her patter skills we have Sheen in Not Getting Married, alongside Dearman and Secomb, a reminder of the variety of styles Sondheim produced.

Secomb really comes into his own with a beautiful version of Loving You from one of Sondheim’s less well-known works, Passion. Then we get to hear him as Sweeney in A Little Priest from Sweeney Todd with Dearman as Mrs Lovett, that glorious moment when they start to consider the benefits of cannibalism.

On we go with music from Into The Woods and Merrily We Roll Along, Gypsy and the title song from one of Sondheim’s flops, Anyone Can Whistle. No Sondheim concert would be complete without the show that started his career, West Side Story, and we get three numbers. Then possibly Sondheim’s most popular song, that classic moment of realisation Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music, a heart-rending performance from Dearman.

The concert concludes with a great crowd-pleaser, Comedy Tonight from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first show for which he wrote both the music and lyrics and a sign of the promising future that lay ahead of him.

Then just when you may feel disappointed that they omitted one of the classics, we get an encore and here it is. The hauntingly beautiful Sunday from Sunday in the Park with George, with its glorious harmonies transporting you to a lazy summer day in the fresh air.

Sondheim was a master wordsmith, with often witty lyrics full of social commentary – it’s a shame that occasional balance issues mean that we don’t always get to hear them all over the orchestra. It’s a minor point though, and only detracts slightly from a wonderful tribute to a giant of musical theatre.

Reviewed on 14 January 2022

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A fitting tribute to a theatre giant

The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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