Lenny and Steve: Maria Friedman continues at Live At Zédel, London until 20 May.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
British artists who truly understand the intimate art of cabaret are few and far between, but the wonderful Maria Friedman is one who stands alongside the very best and an evening in her delicious company is always an undiluted pleasure.
So busy with her expanding career as an award-winning theatre director – she’s been touring with Stepping Out, now housed in the West End at the Vaudeville, with a Dusty Springfield musical next up – cabaret has had to take a back seat. This is a triumphant return to that specialist medium.
And what a return – 18 performances over a unique three-week residency at the lovely art deco room in Piccadilly that many of us still call the Crazy Coqs.
She and her long-time musical director Jason Carr are reprising their Lenny and Steve show, celebrating the work of Bernstein and Sondheim, in what is virtually an action replay of the show first viewed at the Hippodrome in 2012 and again at Zédel last November.
All the old tricks and showbiz yarns are there, although for once she doesn’t let Company’s high-speed ‘Getting Married Today’ – “the hardest song anybody’s been asked to perform” – beat her.
And her hilarious ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, in which she plays all the parts – delinquents, cops, pompous white-wigged judge and German psychiatrist – with a bewildering array of accents, menacing shades and headgear, goes off without a hitch.
She warns us we’re going to see a “middle-aged woman humiliate herself”, but she doesn’t. It all depends on which night you go, I guess.
As a fully-paid-up member of the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ school, she will surely not object to my recycling many of the glowing comments from her last Zédel visit when her ‘Mother Earth’ warmth made each member of her audience feel she was singing just for them. This time we even had John Major joining the standing ovation (although Lady Norma stayed resolutely in her seat).
There is bound to be more Steve than Lenny. She originally wanted to make the show all Sondheim, but because ‘Somewhere’ was only 50% him and she desperately wanted to close with that, her pedantic sidekick Carr (brilliant as ever) wouldn’t let her unless she gave Bernstein a billing too.
So we get some On the Town (‘New York, New York’, ‘I Can Cook, Too’ and ‘Lonely Town’; Wonderful Town (‘One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man’ and ‘A Little Bit in Love’); the moving anti-war ‘So Pretty’, written by Bernstein for a 1968 Broadway For Peace concert; and ‘Take Care of This House’ (from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue).
But it’s the Sondheim classics which most linger in the memory – a heartbreaking ‘Losing My Mind’, (from Follies), sung with a quite shattering beauty and power; a vibrant ‘Being Alive’ (Company); the haunting ‘Children Will Listen’ (Into the Woods); and an extended version of ‘Send in the Clowns’ (A Little Night Music), the song most of us cut our Sondheim teeth on without ever quite knowing what it was all about.