Twenty-seven of Stephen Sondheim’s finest sung by six names that were new to most of us and therefore eager to show what they could do – and with the fun idea of getting the three gals perform the composer/lyricist’s ‘fella’ material and vice versa.
Yes, Sondheim Only …Slighty Rearranged (a line from Company’s ‘Sorry-Grateful’) sounded a good night out and there was a full house at The Pheasantry for the first of three performances, the third of which is at Lauderdale House in Highgate on April 6.
What wasn’t to like? Sadly, quite a lot. The material was always going to be extraordinary but when performed by the ordinary, it is hard to achieve the magic, the kernel of Sondheim’s genius, because nobody ever said he was easy.
There has been a rash of these Sondheim compilations and some are obviously better than others.
We had the big BBC Radio concert with Maria Friedman and Kim Criswell on the South Bank just before Christmas, followed by Putting It Together at Guildford and St James Studio, then two different Sondheim Women shows and Sondheim Men at St James, and, coming up soon, A Good Thing Going at The Pheasantry.
In defence of Sondheim Only …Slighty Rearranged there was nobody of Criswell’s or Janie Dee’s status to give interpretations the songs deserved, and those unfamiliar with the material will probably have taken a good deal more from the evening than Sondheim regulars. There were some nice moments but too much that fell flat.
The three men, Terry Burns, Kwamena Brace and Graham Hope, brought the first half to a lively climax with ‘You Gotta Get a Gimmick’ (from Gypsy) and the girls, Rhiannon Drake, Maggie Robson and Bella Barlow, had a ball with some lively props in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’.
‘Unworthy of Your Love’, Sondheim’s attempt at a Carpenters-style pop song in Assassins and the only one where the sex-change idea was not adhered to, was a sweet duet between Hope and Drake – the latter’s Test of Time production company was formed two years ago to bring music and theatre which has stood the test of time to contemporary audiences.
Drake has a good set of pipes while Robson, the veteran of the sextet, got plenty of laughs out of ‘Cool’ (from West Side Story) as she draped herself all over the long-legged Brace. She acted better than she sang though and struggled with being a female Bobby in Company’s big number ‘Being Alive’.
A far stronger presence on piano would have driven the evening better and although the two girls, Drake and Barlow, who shared that role, were generally competent, the complexity of Sondheim’s music requires more than competency.
There were few surprises in the song choices although ‘Uptown, Downtown’ (from Marry Me a Little), ‘I’m Calm’ (from A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum) and ‘I Remember’ (from Evening Primrose) were semi-rarities well worth introducing to a wider audience.
Sadly, the girls’ version of ‘Agony’ (from Into the Woods) was appropriately named and while Hope’s ‘No One is Alone’ from the same show was decent, Brace’s attempt at ‘There Won’t Be Trumpets’ (from Anyone Can Whistle) fell well short of the mark.
The early songs suffered from first-night nerves, both in the singing and piano-playing. Credit, though, for filling the house on a Monday at a venue where it has sometimes been embarrassing to see only a handful of diners watching performers of far higher repute.
Credit, too, for putting the songs in context with linking patter that would, however, have been lightened by an anecdote or two – and also for providing a full song-list, along with the shows they come from. Pretty obvious but you’d be amazed how often the simple things get overlooked.
Sondheim Only …Slighty Rearranged is performed at Lauderdale House, Highgate on Sunday 6 April.