Maria Friedman and Jason Carr – The Pheasantry

Maria

Maria Friedman, accompanied by Jason Carr, performs Lenny & Steve at The Pheasantry, London

Maria Friedman sings Lenny & Steve with Jason Carr (musical director) at The Pheasantry, London, until 19 January.

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 above most of them. Seventy minutes with her is always an undiluted pleasure.

You never need an excuse to re-book a star of Friedman’s magnitude because she always puts bums on seats, and The Pheasantry has her back for a second two-week residence with her long-time accompanist, musical director and composer Jason Carr. They are reprising their Lenny & Steve show, celebrating the work of Bernstein and Sondheim, which some of of us were lucky enough to first see at the Hippodrome in 2012, and again at The Pheasantry, and in an expanded concert version at the Cadogan Hall last year.

If an excuse were needed, it was to have a ‘name’ worthy of kick-starting The Pheasantry’s salute to its still-missed predecessor Pizza On the Park, which closed its Knightsbridge doors in 2010, and to get the message across that The Pheasantry is the Pizza reincarnated on the King’s Road.

As ever, Friedman sets the bar incredibly high for those to follow, who include home-grown stars Janie Dee and Kerry Ellis, as well as Americans Ray Shell, Tony Award-winner Debbie Gravitte and Broadway veteran Christine Andreas.

Part of Friedman’s greatness lies in the way she owns every song she sings, making each and every one special. Then sharing that ‘special-ness’ with you. In a cabaret setting like The Pheasantry, with her 80-strong audience sitting on three sides of her, she makes each diner feel she is singing just for them with a simple turn of the body, a touching of a hand or a meaningful glance.

There is no faking it with Friedman, the tears and the emotion are real. And she has the warmth to make a joke of her own frailties and not take herself too seriously.

In addition to getting in a muddle during the recklessly fast ‘Getting Married Today’ (from Company), there was another minor blip when she had to re-start her hilarious ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ encore in which she plays all the parts, delinquents, cops, judge and psychiatrist, with a bewildering collection of accents, glasses and headgear, but she did warn us beforehand – “You are now going to see a middle-aged woman making a total fool of herself” – and it is this loveable, huggable quality, this ability to turn the occasional minus into a plus, that is so endearing about her.

Fresh from her triumphant directorial debut with Merrily We Roll Along, and as one of the world’s premier interpreters of Sondheim’s works, there was bound to be more Steve than Lenny, but that was pretty inevitable anyway as she only had five Bernstein shows to choose from.

She explained that she orginally wanted to make it all Sondheim, but because ‘Somewhere’ was only 50 per cent Steve and she desperately wanted to do that West Side Story number, her sidekick Carr wouldn’t let her unless she gave Bernstein a billing as well.

So we got some On the Town (‘New York, New York’, the energetic ‘I Can Cook Too’ and ‘Some Other Time’), Wonderful Town (‘One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man’), and a very moving anti-Vietnam War song ‘So Pretty’ Bernstein wrote for a 1968 Broadway For Peace concert, alongside the Sondheim classics.

And what masterpieces they are in her exquisite hands – a heartbreaking ‘Losing My Mind’ (Follies), a vibrantly positive ‘Being Alive’ and ‘Another Hundred People’ (Company), ‘Children Will Listen’ (Into the Woods), an achingly moving ‘Not a Day Goes By’ and ‘Old Friends’ (Merrily) 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 and the only one that ever made the pop charts.

If there’s anything to complain about, it is on behalf of any Sondheim virgins or passing trade in the audience who might have appreciated a bit more information about the songs and what shows they hailed from.

With thrilling newcomer Carole J Bufford at the Crazy Coqs and the mega-accomplished Friedman at The Pheasantry, it has been a dream start to 2014 for cabaret buffs and there’s still time to catch both, especially Friedman who is in town for another week. Her accomplice, the witty and multi-talented Carr, has a debut solo show of his own coming up at the same venue, sharing the evening with another Sondheim specialist, Janie Dee, from 28 January to 1 February. Not to be missed.

Jeremy Chapman

Maria Friedman sings Lenny & Steve with Jason Carr (musical director) at The Pheasantry, London, until 19 January.

Readers may also be interested in: Carole J Bufford – Crazy Coqs

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