Sondheim: Smiles of a Summer Night at the Cadogan Hall, London.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Two hours of nothing but Sondheim with an orchestra of 33, eight gifted soloists, 11 backing singers and 24 examples of his finest work – no wonder there were plenty of Smiles of a Summer Night from a near-full house at the Cadogan Hall.
It was another of musical director Alex Parker’s one-night concerts and once again this workaholic assembled a top-class line-up in every department.
Of course, Parker does far, far more than simply conduct the orchestra. He has great friends and contacts in the business and even the backing singers regularly take part in his community projects.
What a feast he laid on for us. That great scene-stealer Janie Dee was in wicked form with ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’, ‘Send in the Clowns’ and the less familiar ‘Fear No More’ from The Frogs.
The divine operatic mezzo of Lucy Schaufer is always a joy and Parker and director Alastair Knights rang the changes by giving her a man’s song to get her educated tonsils into, ‘Johanna’ from Sweeney Todd, which she pulled off beautifully.
Fra Fee’s voice, so rich and full, has a special ring to it and is one you never tire of admiring. His ‘I Read’ duet from Passion with Laura Pitt-Pulford was a high spot of an evening that was not short of them.
Royal Academy of Music scholar Lauren Morris was a new name to some of us, but she performed a terrific ‘On the Steps of the Palace’ from Into the Woods and was a key member of the team which made hay with a very amusing ‘Not Getting Married Today’ from Company.
It wasn’t always a case of treading old, familiar paths either. Parker dug out ‘That Dirty Old Man’, not the best-known song from A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum by any means.
Jordan Lee Davies made a good job of this and excelled along with Fee on the glorious ‘Take Me to the World’ from Evening Primrose.
Everything David Birrell did was pure class, not least the moving ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ from Follies, and there was no chance of us missing a word of anything Tamsin Dowsett was involved in. She has a great belt.
Pitt-Pulford has a lovely voice but not a big one and now and again we lost a few words. She had the tricksy 11 o’clock number ‘Another Hundred People’ from Company to navigate and pulled that off as well as the very different ‘No One is Alone’ from Into The Woods.
Occasionally I found the orchestra a little overpowering and the shoehorning of so much material into a two-hour slot came at the expense of the spoken word or interplay with the audience, so those unfamiliar with some of the shows had to guess what was going on.
These concerts inevitably miss the warmth that the intimacy of a smaller cabaret room brings, but the 950-seater Cadogan Hall, a former Christian Science church, can do nothing about that.
And Alastair Knights’ idea of splitting the songs into the changing seasons of the year as a way of journeying through the Sondheim catalogue, a nice one on paper, didn’t really work for me.
But a very worthwhile, well-rehearsed effort by all concerned, particularly the energetic and hugely talented Parker.
Sondheim concert at Cadogan Hall – Lucy Schaufer on making a personal connection to the music – Interview