Maria Friedman and Friends at the Ambassadors Theatre, London (20 and 21 May).
It was quite a blow for the original concept of ‘Maria Friedman & Adam Guettel in Concert and Conversation’ when Guettel was compelled to pull out at short notice to be at the bedside of his ailing mother (and fellow composer) Mary Rodgers, but in true showbiz tradition the show must go on.
Instead we got Friedman doing the Adam Guettel songbook, not quite on her own because there were 11 other creatives on stage: a band of five under Kimberly Grigsby, a hugely gifted Broadway musical director and pianist; Ashley Robinson, a cast member from Friedman’s award-winning Menier Chocolate Factory production of Merrily We Roll Along, who duetted with her on ‘Blue Eyes’ and ‘Come to Jesus’; plus an attractive four-strong vocal backing group.
But conversation was, of necessity, limited although there was some light-hearted interplay between Friedman and Grigsby, who had one noticeable thing in common – both performed bare-footed!
It wasn’t what it said on the tin but was a lot better than cancelling the two-night Ambassadors show that was intended to be the marquee event of the second London Festival of Cabaret.
Guettel’s music, classically handsome though it often is, doesn’t resonate with everyone, which is why his musicals such as Floyd Collins and the double-Tony-award-winning Light in the Piazza will never have huge followings. He is one for the connoisseurs, this grandson of Richard Rodgers, and quite difficult unless you are familiar with his work and a convert to it, which I am not.
I am sure that many in the audience were drawn to the show by the Friedman name. She is a lady who would have my entire attention even if she were singing her way through the West Thames edition of the telephone directory.
But theatre is as much about educating as it is about entertainment, and those who didn’t know much about Guettel beyond his name will have gone away thrilled by the ethereal beauty of material such as ‘How Glory Goes’, Friedman’s awesome encore from Floyd Collins, the 1996 musical about the slow death of a trapped Kentucky cave explorer which was seen over here at the Bridewell in 1999 and two years ago at Southwark Playhouse.
Friedman’s treatment of ‘Dividing Day’ from Light in the Piazza was another highlight, but it was a piano solo of the title song from that show, stunningly played by Grigsby, which deservedly got one of the biggest ovations of the 80-minute evening.
More easily digestible recent work, including ‘Travelling Light’ and ‘Millions’ (from a musical Guettel has fashioned from Danny Boyle’s 2004 film comedy Millions), was interwoven with the complexity and chromaticism of ‘Saturn Returns’ and ‘Sisyphus’ to give us a picture of a man influenced as much by classial composers as his famous forebears.
Oh yes, and Stevie Wonder even got a mention as one of Guettel’s inspirations!
Four stars of the Royal Academy of Music class of 2013, Joe Vetch, Holly-Anna Lloyd, Alex Spinney and Christine Allado, provided the excellent backing vocals and the band responding so gallantly to MD Grigsby consisted of Elaine Booth (reeds), Pablo Mendelssohn (trumpet, flugelhorn), Mattin Whittington (percussion), Daffyd Lewis (bass) and Andrew Waterson (guitar). The show was directed by Jonathan Butterell.
Readers may also be interested in:
David Bedella & Friends – St James Theatre Studio – Review
Fascinating Aida – Charm Offensive – St James Theatre – Review
Julie Atherton – Tempting Fate – St James Theatre Studio – Review