Lenny and Steve – Maria Friedman continues at Live at Zedel, London until 14 November.
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 Americans, and an evening with her is always an undiluted pleasure.
So busy with her expanding career as a theatre director – she announced that her touring version of Steppin’ Out has found a West End home at the Vaudeville from next March – that she has had to relegate cabaret to a back seat, this is an overdue return.
She and long-time accompanist Jason Carr are reprising their Lenny and Steve show, celebrating the work of Bernstein and Sondheim, in a five-day residency at Live at Zedel (the new name for Crazy Coqs).
This is almost an action replay of the show first seen at the Hippodrome in 2012, complete with her old trick of ‘deliberately’ messing up the high-speed ‘Getting Married Today’ (from Company), cursing herself at her
‘frailties’ and promising to get it right before the run ends. Oh yeah?
Friedman’s cabaret greatness lies in her warmth and hug-ability and the way she owns every song she sings, then sharing that ‘special-ness’ with us, making each member of her sold-out audience feel she is singing just for them.
She plays another joke on us when she has to re-start her ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ encore in which she plays all parts – delinquents, cops, pompous judge and German psychiatrist – with a bewildering collection of accents, glasses and headgear, after getting into yet another ‘muddle’.
She warns us beforehand: “You are now going to see a middle-aged woman making a total fool of herself,” and so she seemingly does. But it’s all carefully worked out and even more hilarious than the West Side Story original.
As one of the world’s premier interpreters of Sondheim’s works, now as Olivier Award-winning director as well as actress, there is bound to be more Steve than Lenny.
She explains she orginally wanted to make it all Sondheim but because ‘Somewhere’ was only 50% Steve and she desperately wanted to close with that West Side Story number, her sidekick Carr (brilliant as ever) wouldn’t let her unless she gave Bernstein a billing as well.
So we get some On the Town (‘New York, New ‘I Can Cook, Too’ and ‘Lonely Town’), (‘One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man’ and ‘A Little Bit of Love’), a moving anti-war song ‘So Pretty’, written by Bernstein for a 1968 Broadway For Peace concert, and a topical message to Trump ‘Take Care of This House’ (from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue).
But it’s mainly Sondheim. And what masterpieces they are in her exquisite hands – a heartbreaking ‘Losing My Mind’ (Follies), 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.
Normally it is ‘Clowns’ that gets the standing ovation but here it was ‘Losing My Mind’, sung with a quite shattering beauty and power.
What with those extraordinary American singer-songwriters Ann Hampton Callaway and Amanda McBroom opening the night before at The Pheasantry, London cabaret has never had it so good. Such a pity they had to clash…
Readers may also be interested in:
Divalicious! – Ann Hampton Callaway and Amanda McBroom –The Pheasantry, London – Review