Maria Friedman: Back to Before continues at The Pheasantry, London, until 26 October.
Nobody understands the art of cabaret better than Maria Friedman, actress, singer, director and now EastEnder extraordinaire, and her new show, Back to Before, in residence for two weeks at The Pheasantry on Chelsea’s Kings Road, is, as expected, a joy from start to finish.
Her debut at The Queen Vic this week may have had the bigger audience – it coincided with EastEnders topping the soap ratings – but whether it‘s in front of 6.9 million or 69, nobody gives more of herself to an audience.
Loveable, warm and with a generosity of spirit that gives her instant rapport with everyone in the room, Friedman is an inspiration to any aspiring performer and what an education it must be for the Royal Academy of Music students who back her up in this enchanting 75-minute trawl through the glittering career of one of Britain’s greatest theatrical treasures.
An evening without a song (or even mention) of Stephen Sondheim, whose work she is most closely associated with, comes as a bit of a culture shock, but it is a deliberate omission as this versatile performer wants to emphasise she has plenty of other tricks in her locker.
Not least a long and fruitful collaboration with another American genius, Marvin Hamlisch, whose two biggest hits ‘The Way We Were’ and ‘What I Did For Love’ bookend an evening of anecdote and reminiscence as well as song. And one of the evening’s high-spots is the heart-tearing ‘At the Ballet’ from Hamlisch’s most famous musical A Chorus Line.
So nervous at one early audition that she even forgot her own name when asked for it, Friedman finally made it to the Oklahoma! national tour, and she celebrates her big break in 1980 that led to a West End debut with a rousing medley from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical.
Hilarious behind-the-scenes tales link shows that won acclaim for this three-time Olivier Award winner, such as The Witches of Eastwick, Chicago (a brilliant version of ‘Roxie’), Blues in the Night, Lady in the Dark and Ragtime, and songs like the exceptional ‘A Garden’, by her longtime accompanist-composer Jason Carr, she simply wants to sing because they mean so much to her.
None moves the audience more than the powerful ‘In the Sky’, written by a 12-year-old Jewish victim and translated from Yiddish for the musical play Ghetto which Friedman did for the Royal National in 1989. You could hear a pin drop.
Storytelling, laughter, tears, happy, sad, accents, funny voices, musicality, total sincerity. Nobody does it better. Get up close and personal with this force of nature while there are still tickets to be had.