Hey, Old Friends! – An 85th Birthday Tribute to Stephen Sondheim at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Galas such as this one to celebrate composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday are notoriously difficult to pull off. Everything from the tricky issue of performers’ availability to limited rehearsal time can affect the finished product. However, all of those involved in the creation of Hey, Old Friends – not least director/choreographer Bill Deamer – can be pretty proud of an evening which was something of a triumph.
Apart from the odd stop and start between numbers, Deamer, the creative team and the backstage crew ensured that this was a pretty smooth-running affair with both Sondheim’s well-known work – A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, etc – and less familiar material featured.
There was room for a bit of tongue in cheek humour at the very top of the show when Kit and McConnel pondered the idiosyncrasies of ‘People Who Like Sondheim’. Having been ticked off for their disrespect by veterans of Sondheim productions, Julia McKenzie and Millicent Martin, the duo popped up regularly throughout the evening, suggesting each time that the the composer’s work was growing on them.
A somewhat female dominated cast was celebrated right from the word go with Joseph Shovelton introducing the ‘Beautiful Girls’ (Follies). In Act I, these included Anita Harris, looking as elegant as ever, and offering a tender rendition of ‘Take Me to the World’ from Evening Primrose.
The indomitable Rosemary Ashe was on hand for an intense interpretation of In the Woods’ ‘The Last Midnight’, a marked improvement on Meryl Streep’s attempt in the movie version, as well as ‘There’s Always a Woman’ (originally cut from Anyone Can Whistle), a feisty duet in which Laura Pitt-Pulford more than held her on own in a quick-fire musical exchange.
Sally Ann Triplett, who was in the original London production of Follies, proved she had lost none of her energy and versatility since then with a cleverly choreographed ‘Lucy and Jessie’ (Follies), although it would have worked better as the penultimate number of Act I. Bringing us to the interval should have been the two songs from Sunday in the Park With George: a captivating ‘Move On’, performed by Anna Francolini and Daniel Evans (who played George in the 2005 Menier production and in the West End) and the emotionally powerful and life-affirming ‘Sunday’ in which they were joined by the whole company. When Deamer created these mini narratives, the show was at its very best.
Elsewhere in the first half, Evans was joined by Simon Green and Michael Peavoy for a beautifully melodic ‘Pretty Lady’ (Pacific Overtures) and it was great to see Tim Flavin on form, playing merry hell with the lesser-known ‘Hades’ (The Frogs). The incredibly successful London Fringe revival of Side By Side By Sondheim at the Brockley Jack Studio was represented in style by Stuart Pedlar (who 40 years ago was onboard for the original production), Marianne Benedict, Grant McConvey, Sarah Redmond and Dan Glover.
McConvey was a finalist in this year’s Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year competition and was not only highly commended, but also sang the winning song in the Stiles & Drewe Best New Song prize.
It was great at the beginning of Act II to see the 2015 winner, Erin Doherty, joined by six of the other young performers who have come out top in the competition since it began nine years ago. Singing ‘Old Friends’ (Merrily We Roll Along) were Carl Au, Turlough Convery, Erin Doherty, Adrian Grove, Kris Olsen, Michael Peavoy and Corrine Priest. If anyone needed evidence of what The Stephen Sondheim Society does to promote young talent, then they didn’t need to look any further than this musical interlude.
There was also plenty of fun to be had in Act II, kicking off with Martin Milnes and Dominic Ferris (on the piano) who set themselves the challenge of referencing 33 Sondheim songs in five minutes. The result was brilliantly executed with Milnes’ incredible vocal range allowing him to step into the shoes of every Sondheim character in the book – male or female!
Lighthearted frolics were also available via a stunning (and very flexible!) Bonnie Langford who picked up a rather famous partner in Strictly’s Anton du Beke for ‘Can That Boy Foxtrot!’ (originally dropped from Follies) and Tiffany Graves and Alistair McGowan’s charming characterisations in ‘Come Play Wiz Me’ (Anyone Can Whistle). Original Side By Side cast member Millicent Martin, who had flown in from Beverly Hills for the concert, nicely timed a cheeky version of ‘I Never Do Anything Twice’ (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution).
On a quieter note, it was really wonderful to see Lorna Dallas back onstage, after a break due to personal reasons. Her touching rendition of ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ had a depth of emotion that will stay with me for a good while yet.
Finally, five 11 o’clock numbers, one after the other, proved once again what an incredible gift Sondheim has been to the world of musical theatre. Tracie Bennett put her own stamp on ‘Broadway Baby’ (Follies), a convincingly heartbroken Haydn Gwynne gave us ‘Send in the Clowns’ (A Little Night Music), there was a bewilderment and desperation in Charlotte Page’s ‘Losing My Mind’ and Kim Criswell, always a class act, made sure we were there on every step of her journey through ‘I’m Still Here’.
Last but not least, Michael Xavier left us with an inspiring and thought-provoking interpretation of that classic, ‘Being Alive’ (Follies) – great storytelling.
Huge credit to a fine orchestra in the very safe hands of charismatic musical director Gareth Valentine, the impressive Hey, Old Friends Ensemble – Michelle Andrews, Jessica Buckby, Ashley Cooper, Flora Dawson, Callum Fitzgerald, Ryan Gover, Tom Mather, Amira Matthews, Jo Lucy Rackham, Anthony Ray, Emily Warner and Andrew Watkins – and an extremely talented and professional bunch of young performers from ArtsEd’s Musical Theatre School.
Not every aspect of the concert was perfect: in an ideal world it would have worked better for the in-between song hosts (including Nicholas Parsons, Anne Reid and Anita Dobson) to have been properly introduced and more references made to the shows from which the numbers derived. Plus, I am sure there were some performances that didn’t make the grade with Sondheim aficionados in the audience who would also have spotted the occasional missed lyric.
Yet there was still plenty to admire in a thoroughly entertaining evening, presented by Richard Douglas Productions and The Stephen Sondheim Society, as well as a great deal raised I hope for said society and The Silver Line (the UK’s only free, confidential helpline for older people, founded by Esther Rantzen).
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