Sondheim At The Barbican
BBC Radio 2, 29 May 1993
Reviewed by Emma Shane
© Janaury 2003
As I didn’t actually see this event, this review is of the radio broadcast. Therefore the visual element, and with some of these performers there must surely have been some visual element, is missing.
The concert gets off to a rousing passionate start, as Louise Gold leads the other soloists with a believably enthusiastic rendition of Putting It Together. She also makes a splendid effort at fast tempo singing, which although she is not a natural fast tempo singer, she just pulls off.
Having quietened down, Gold then goes completely silent for the remaining half of the first half of the show, and the energy level promptly drops like a stone.
Sheridan Morely does not seem to be quite on top form, his next introduction found him telling us that Pacific Overtures was about “An American Invasion Of Japan in the last century!”. This is followed by a medley of piano pieces starting and ending with that compilation show standard Comedy Tonight from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and sandwiched in between were Pretty Lady from the afore mentioned Pacific Overtures, and, The Ballad Of Guiteau from Assassins. Although Ronnie Price and Andrew Vinter play well, without the wonderful lyrics, Sondheim’s music begins to sound a bit dull.
The uninspired low energy level continues with James Smile’s rendition of Not A Day Goes By from Merrily We Roll Along. Somewhat bizarrely, Sheridan Morely’s introduction while complaining that there’s never been a West End production (since then of course there has) completely fails to mention the fabled Leicester production, despite having two members of that cast appearing as soloists in tonight’s entertainment.
The energy level picks up a little with Marry Me A Little, as Maria Friedman takes charge and delivers such a winning performance, that Sheridan Morely can’t resist referring to her by his moniker for her “The great and good Maria Friedman”. Listening to her wonderful rendition of this song, which doesn’t always work as well as this completely out of context, made me wonder, perhaps this is an overlooked Sondheim gem, would it be a ripe candidate in a compilation show, or concert, for being given a gimmick? How about turning it into a duet? Or even, what about getting a first rate voice-artiste and have them sing it as a duet with themselves?
Following on from Friedman’s lead, The Stephen Hill Singers tackle their next ensemble piece, Gee Officer Krupke with a will. It comes out as a good ensemble piece, with some excellent bit players, the male voicing the central child was particularly good.
Continuing with the show originally known (according the Sheridan Morely’s introduction) as Gangway, but now better known as West Side Story, The Stephen Hill Singers are joined by some of the soloists: Maria Friedman, Angela Richards, Helen Duncan, Derek Chessor, and, James Smilie, to end the first half on a high with a number titled in the programme as Quintet, which is instantly recognisable as Tonight. In spite of the presence of several soloists, this is very much an ensemble piece, and it is noticeable that a certain scene stealer is kept strictly out of the way; all the same, I can’t help but be reminded of the time Sesame Street spoofed that song.
The first half had ended on a high. Unfortunately the second half opened a tad unremarkably with the instrumental of the title song from a rather obscure Sondheim show, Waltz. However, things soon got better, as the singers returned for A Weekend In The Country. “Believe me that was some weekend” remarks Sheridan Morely. Indeed it was. The number starts with the welcome return of Louise Gold as the maid in the introductory vocal. She is soon joined by Maria Friedman, and James Smile, bemoaning the idea, until Angela Richards chips in with the delightful explanation role, followed by David Kernan and The Stephen Hill Singers. It’s some ensemble piece, with something in it for everyone.
That amazing ensemble piece is followed by Angela Richards’s rendition of Send In The Clowns. Given that I don’t particularly like this number, I actually found her performance to be not bad, but not particularly remarkable either.
Now it’s time to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”, with A Little Priest. Although at the time a production of Sweeney Todd was about to open at The National Theatre the following week, this concert didn’t use actors from that, instead Louise Gold and James Smilie do the honours remarkably well. Both performers can clearly act as well as sing, and are very convincing in their characters. One thing this song really needs above all else, is performers who can sing in a good cockney accent; And (unlike that memorably not-exactly-very-successful attempt at The Peacock Theatre, in 2000 - involving a performer very much from Chattanooga Tennessee) this concert has a real mistress of accent in the role of Mrs Lovett. Few actresses are as good at doing different voices as Louise Gold undoubtedly is, and here she is in her element with a cockney one. This is the one moment in the entire production where Gold really gets to sparkle. Though James Smilie delivers a sturdy performance, he is all but overshadowed by this shining star. Some nine years later, in an interview, Gold herself remarked that Sondheim’s “work is mainly intended for performers who are both singers and actors”, and here this singer who is also an actress gets a wonderful opportunity to illustrate that point, slipping easily and effectively between speech and song, and getting right into character. Her other great gift, which gets a good airing, is her comic abilities. Few actresses have been privileged to have the kind of experience she has had in this area, and now it stands her in good stead with some of the lines she had to deliver in this song. At the end the audience gave this tour de force the applause a showstopper demands.
Wisely that showstopper was followed by a couple of chorus numbers from The Stephen Hill Singers, namely Into The Woods and Sunday. Though well performed, they seem a little dull after Louise Gold’s spectacular contribution. But perhaps it is just as well to have something to bring the audience down to earth before the next principal.
Even so, it’s still difficult for Angela Richards to make an impact with The Boy From. However, she does sing it well, and she sings it with quite an Essex sort of accent, which is exactly what one has come to expect after Millicent Martin inhabited it in Side By Side By Sondheim. It is entirely satisfactory.
On with the comedy and it’s the turn of James Smilie and David Kernan to sing Buddy’s Blues. Only with a slight twist, they sang it rather more as two male clowns, than a clown and his two girls. Thus they had to take it in turns to play Buddy and his girls.
Now it’s time for a star turn from someone who hasn’t had so much to do in the second half, Maria Friedman. Having already shown herself to be a capable Sondheim singer, now Friedman gets her chance to deliver a showstopper, Broadway Baby. It’s a jolly good performance, presented in a sweet innocent style, bursting with talent, and is in fact Friedman’s star turn.
It would be a hard act to follow, but fortunately it is time for the grand finale. David Kernan, James Smilie and The Stephen Hill Singers, take their places and bring on those Beautiful Girls: Maria Friedman, Angela Richards, and, Louise Gold (well that’s the order Sheridan Morely says their names in). But here we miss the visual element, which is a great shame, not least because we have no way of knowing whether or not Louise Gold managed to make a spectacle of herself, as she usually does whenever she gets involved with a production of that number. It is however noticeable that the entrance of the girls is marked by a burst of clapping from the audience, so we are left wondering...
Finally the concert comes to an end with a suitable get off song, Old Friends, from Merrily We Roll Along. Here Maria Friedman noticeably dominates the singing, although with strong voiced Louise Gold around, one is left to wonder how much of that is down to Friedman herself, and how much due to the sound engineer; but as she seems to be quite the star of the show, and given her involvement with singing Sondheim’s work perhaps it is appropriate.
This concert featured several notable Sondheim performers, in particular: Maria Friedman, Louise Gold, and, David Kernan. It has to be said that “The great and the good Maria Friedman” (to quote Sheridan Morely) emerges as the clear star of the show, especially with Broadway Baby; However, Louise Gold comes a jolly close second, particularly with her contributions to A Little Priest. So overall, I for one am glad to have heard it.