Sondheim 80th Birthday Celebration, Cadogan Hall, 3 April 2010

This is, I think, the third of these Sondheim extravaganzas I’ve been to at Cadogan Hall, all of them centred on Maria Friedman.  On this occasion she was joined by Graham Bickley, Daniel Evans and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with David Firman as musical director.

It was a curiously put-together programme.  The first 45mins or so were a run through Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim’s 1981 show which runs backwards, starting with a group of fashionable music theatre collaborators’ latest tortured endeavour and whisking us back to their idealistic starting point as they stand on a roof watching Sputnik pass over.  Whilst the songs were performed well enough, the cuts meant that the dramatic flow was rather a challenge to follow, so it didn’t feel much like it ‘whisked us’ at all and, in fact, slightly outstayed its welcome.  It did make you wonder if just choosing a solid selection of songs to perform might not have been a better bet.  Some rather perfunctory Powerpoint slides that served as a background – and attempt to guide us through the story (think giant ‘1974’ in Times New Roman with ‘plonked’ period pictures of the three actors) – didn’t instil any greater confidence in the project.

With that merrily out of the way, there followed numbers of a standard sort of fayre, including Evening Primrose’s I Remember, selections from Sweeney Todd, Follies, A Little Night Music, Company, Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George.  Noteworthy amongst them were Friedman’s Send in the Clowns and Losing My Mind,  which achieved a sort of stillness which was lacking in the rather over-frenetic presentation of the material elsewhere.  Barcelona was delivered well by Evans and Friedman, playing off each other well, and Bickley gave Buddy’s Blues a full-on treatment so that a number that I usually feel to be rather tiresome was actually a bit more satisfying for sheer force of presentation.

Elsewhere, whilst the proceedings never failed to entertain, there were issues that needed addressing.  Firstly, the amplification was excessive and the microphones not entirely reliable.  Thus, there were many moments where the combination of RPO at full throttle and mic’d voices in the not-overly large Cadogan Hall became tiring, and I left with some ringing in the ears.  More seriously, perhaps, was the general sense of unpreparedness that pervaded.  All of the performers switched between singing from a score and singing from memory, and there were a number of slips, memory failings and rushes to the nearest music stand.  Most culpable was Friedman herself: not for the first time I was aware that those lapses, ‘whoops’ and erroneous repetitions seem to have become integral to her performance.  There was a decision – interesting, but not terribly successful – to shake up Not Getting Married by having Paul (Bickley) sing to the nervous ‘Jamie’ (rather than Amy; sung by Evans).  Although this seemed initially to ward off the inevitable tenseness that would have accompanied Friedman negotiating the lyrics of such a complex number.  As it happened, Evans himself fluffed a few lines and, banished to the Cadogan Hall balcony to sing the hymnals, Friedman managed to fluff the lines with a score in front of her.  It is always taken with good humour, and there is an infectiousness about the good-humoured way that she gets the audience on-side with, for example, her finger-gun-to-her-temple gestures as she walks off, but actually, if you look at it coldly, other singers have been roundly condemned for less.  It does become just a little trying after a while.  Finally, to add to the sense of unpreparedness, the number from Sunday in the Park struck these ears as, quite frankly, a mess with ragged pitching and timing from all parties.

Firman’s multiple changes of outfit (was his wardrobe bigger than Friedman’s?) accompanied a rather febrile stage presence, but his pacing was faultless, even if the dynamics became unrelentingly loud after a while and that, as noted above, may not be his fault.  The RPO’s playing was excellent in ensemble and in solo ‘spots’, and they seemed well attuned to Sondheim’s demands.

All in all, a very enjoyable evening, and a solid tribute to Sondheim in the days following his 80th.  However, a feeling of ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ replaced a sense of scrupulous preparation.  Perfectly possible to get away with once or twice, but dangerous if repeated too often.

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