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Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends, A Celebration (Sondheim Theatre)

(3rd May 2022)

Last night’s concert isn’t going to be just a memory for those of us who were there. It is now an indelible part of our actual DNA. Hugely unlikely anybody will ever manage to assemble so many stars past, present and future who worked with the man himself or with those who did so directly over decades.

Onto a simple set a 26 piece orchestra on a platform with stairs leading down to a playing area over which Sondheim’s benign presence presided from the proscenium arch, out strolled Julia McKenzie, her first stage appearance since “Hey, Mr Producer” Cameron Mackintosh’s own birthday celebration 24 years ago.

The man himself followed to open the show with a moving yet entertaining memoir of the most influential musical theatre creator of the 20th century. Gently hustled off by the professionals, “Sunday in the Park With George” from Daniel Evans gave way to “Side By Side” from Ashley Campbell, Rosalie Craig, Josefina Gabrielle, Amy Griffiths, Bradley Jaden, Julia McKenzie and Jenna Russell.

As could be predicted, the men replied with “Comedy Tonight” with Clive Rowe, Gary Wilmot, the West End All Stars (the evening's hugely talented ensemble) and one Rob Brydon, who went on to admit that with Haydn Gywnne “The Little Things You Do Together” make marriage a joy. The real joy being Gywnne’s vocal and Brydon’s running joke about being too short for his stool.

Classic Sondheim ladies’ trio “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” had Anna-Jane Casy, Janie Dee and Josefina Gabrielle in a hilariously well-choreographed sequence and stunning outfits.

The mood changed a little as Clive Rowe gave a heart-wrenching “Live Alone and Like It” before Michael Ball segued into “Loving You” from ‘Passion’ and produced perfect stillness.

Holly-Anne Hull channelled her inner Vicar of Dibley (incidentally, Dawn French was in the audience) to marry reluctant Anna-Jane Casey to Jon Robyns, Casey managing with ease the amazingly fast patter of “Getting Married Today”.

As the wedding guests pulled out lanterns, the West End All Stars took us Into The Woods, Julian Ovenden and Michael D. Xavier sharing their “Agony” over life and ladies as Red Riding Hood lurked.

Throwing back her hood, the show stopped for the first time as the audience acknowledged Bernadette Peters, as she herself acknowledged “I Know Things Now.” Damian Lewis did too, “Hello Little Girl” made even more lascivious by his wolf ears and delightful tail. Peters then pulled a diamond with “Children Will Listen,” sung as nobody could fail not to heed her words.

Out of the woods, time for “A Weekend in the Country” led off by maid Desmonda Cathabel – the young Indonesian the monkey was so taken with at “Maria Friedman and Friends.” She more than held her own as Janie Dee, Rob Houchen, Holly-Anne Hull, Julian Ovenden, Michael D. Xavier and the West End All Stars plotted a strategy to bring down their hostess with fun in the process.

Then a definitive moment. Dame Judi Dench. “Send In The Clowns.” Show stopped, standing ovation, which would have gone on longer had there not been so much more to get through. Nothing more to add.

Lightening or darkening the tone, depending on your taste for slick melodrama, good use was made of the “Les Misérables” slums, re-purposed as Fleet Street for a visit to Sweeney Todd. Michael Ball and a gaggle of West End All Stars townsfolk gave us the background “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” before Maria Friedman told of Mrs Lovett’s catering woes in “The Worst Pies in London” (spit into her apron, dear, wise advice).

“My Friends” suggested how Mr Ball might take revenge, “Pretty Women” Jeremy Secomb’s last duet before Maria Friedman suggested a cunning plan to recycle him and Mr Ball finally got it – “A Little Priest” found the sweetest spot of humour as well as a satire only Sondheim can do.

Sticking firmly to the liquid, Haydn Gwynne came up from the stalls to celebrate “The Ladies Who Lunch” in style before Daniel Evans, Bernadette Peters and the West End All Stars brought a harmonious curtain down on the first half with a heartfelt “Sunday.”

Such was the atmosphere, it was only by taking the auditorium lights down to half that the audience were persuaded to re-take their seats instead of enthusing in the aisle and let the second half begin with the Entr’acte “Overture from Merrily We Roll Along”.

And roll in they did, the New York street gangs to give us a quintet from West Side Story. Shan Ako, Christine Allado, Lous Gaunt, Rob Houchen and students from the Royal Academy Musical Theatre Company and Mountview – both schools should probably consult police immediately to deal with the issue before the rabble get out of hand.

Speaking of rabble, the hotly contested “Broadway Baby” went from the “Hey, Mr Producer!” routine of Gary Wilmot as frustrated audition pianist dealing with Julia McKenzie to a battle for supremacy between Rosalie Craig, Maria Friedman, Josefina Gabrielle, Amy Griffiths, Hayden Gwynne, Bonnie Langford, Bernadette Peters, Jenna Russell and Helena Bonham Carter - the last swooping in at the last minute to take it. Standing ovation as the final tableau, what else could we do?

With all those ladies around, Roman sexism arrived as Rob Brydon, Damien Lewis and Julian Ovenden agreed that “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” and Sian Phillips set them right.

Burlesque reminded us that “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” and Anna-Jane Casey, Bernadette Peters and Bonnie Langford had theirs – Langford’s eye-watering end to the song drawing more gasps than even Casey’s electric dress or Peters Trumpet.

The monkey’s personal favourite from “Follies,” “Waiting For The Girls Upstairs” was given proper nostalgia by Ashley Campbell, Rob Houchen and Bradley Jaden, Charlie Stemp summing it up, “Weren’t we chuckle-heads then.”

The Girl arrived, Petula Clark, “I’m Still Here”. One of the very best versions of the song the monkey has ever heard, a true theatre survivor giving us autobiography and growing through adversity to end on a note of total victory and another standing ovation until she left the stage.

Michael Ball then asked “Could I Leave You” and had the audience stunned into silence with his final answer to us, “guess”... he certainly had us doing so.

One Man vaudevillian Gary Wilmot gave us “Buddy’s Blues” complete with counterpoint from a dim but devoted lover, well, until the next man produced furs. Another show-stopper in an evening full of them.

Against a beach back-projection, “The Boy From....” by Janie Dee demonstrated Sondheim’s flair for pastiche even of popular music.

The tone turned black as Bernadette Peters revealed she was “Losing My Mind”. Another perfection, another standing ovation continued until the lady had entered the wings.

Just when the evening couldn’t yield any more wonders, Imelda Staunton appeared, with her career high, Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and the audience came to its collective feet once more.

A reminder of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber / Stephen Sondheim duet from "Hey, Mr Producer" provided a video breathing space and no little fond chuckling. 

“Not A Day Goes By” when we who love musical theatre don’t miss Stephen Sondheim. A backdrop of changing projected photographs of his life and career, Michael Ball, Rosalie Craig, Maria Friedman, Julia McKenzie, Bernadette Peters, Jenna Russell and the West End All Stars gathered beneath the screen to celebrate, remember and mark.

Michael Ball, Rob Brydon, Rosalie Craig, Hayden Gwynne, Bradley Jaden, Bonnie Langford, Julian Ovenden, Jon Robyns, Jenna Rusell, Jeremy Secomb, Michael D. Xavier and the West End All Stars then reminded us of the importance of “Being Alive” to bring the full company and Sir Cameron Mackintosh onto the stage for “Old Friends” and “Side By Side”.

The final closure came from the young, as a truly stunning troupe of new West End performers of the future filled the side aisles in front of the proscenium, spilling up and onto the stage either side of the rest of the cast to deliver a pure gold “Our Time.”

It was our time, time to reflect on the incalculable gift Stephen Sondheim gave to the world, and the generosity he inspired in those he worked with and shared his friendship with, to produce an evening that not only celebrated his life and work and the joy he has given the entire world, but will also live on through the Stephen Sondheim foundation for which the evening will raise much needed funds.

Who was quite like him? Damn few.

6 stars. 5 standing ovations.


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