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Maria Friedman and Friends: Legacy at the Menier Chocolate Factory – review

The work of Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Hamlisch, and Michel Legrand is celebrated in concert

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

© Nobby Clark

"Who's that girl?" Stephen Sondheim asked when he first saw the then-unknown singer Maria Friedman at a gala featuring luminaries such as Eartha Kitt and Elaine Stritch.  Stritch had made the song "Broadway Baby" from Follies indelibly her own, and as Friedman ventured into the spotlight to sing that song, a voice from the gallery shouted: "Get off, we want Elaine!"

Friedman tells this story early in her entrancing new show, Legacy, a tribute to the songs of Sondheim, Marvin Hamlisch, and Michel Legrand, all of whom she worked closely with. She thanks "that little shit in the gods" because he taught her a valuable lesson: "I went into the lyric and I learnt that if you go into the work, you're safe."

The entire evening proves her ability to lean into the song, to find a narrative thread that leads her thoughts and feelings through the piece. Combined with her beautiful, slightly husky voice, it makes her the most wonderful interpreter of this section of the musical songbook.

As for Sondheim, that question was entirely complimentary. After seeing her "Broadway Baby", he asked her to audition for the part of Dot in the British production of Sunday in the Park with George, initiating a relationship that lasted 35 years. Right up until his death, she was still talking to him, singing for him and discussing her production of Merrily We Roll Along.

Both Sunday and Merrily have big roles to play in this celebration. An extensive extract from the first brings all her collaborators onto the stage, including a strong contingent of students from the Royal Academy of Music and the young singers Desmonda Cathabel (who sent an audition tape from Indonesia) and Alfie Friedman (who happens to be Maria's son and was roped in when someone fell ill). The rousing, but pretty difficult to sing, "Our Time" provides an audience participation exercise at the close.

It's that kind of night, shaped for aficionados, full of good humour, good anecdotes and a sense of joy in the songs. Friedman is a welcoming host, kicking her shoes off early in proceedings, telling brilliant stories, including one about performing at a gala for Hamlisch when she was both bald from cancer treatment and wearing a surgical boot after breaking her leg. It was, however, trumped on the matinee I saw by Hamlisch's widow, Terre Blair, who came up from the audience to tell the tale of the time the couple were held at gunpoint. "I don't think these guys know I wrote A Chorus Line," he said, deadpan.

But beyond the showbiz bonhomie and Friedman's oft-expressed desire to give the next generation a chance to perform, it's the music that counts and, gosh, how it thrives. The three-piece band – Paul Moylan on bass, Joe Evans on drums, and Theo Jamieson on piano – make an astonishing amount of sound and music director Jamieson's arrangements are often ear-catchingly original and always thrilling.

The songs are beautifully delivered too, with Ian Mclarnon and Matthew White the other contributors. Although there's a good smattering of Hamlisch, and a little less of Legrand, it's Sondheim who dominates, with an aspiring singer called Aoife Dunne coming on to sing a cracking version of "I Know Things Now" from Into the Woods, White joining Friedman in a spirited version of Sweeney Todd's "A Little Priest" and Mclarnon contributing a fine Buddy's Song (from Follies).

Friedman junior throws in a tongue-twisting "Franklin Shepard, Inc" (from Merrily) which reveals he has all of his mother's way with a lyric, while Cathabel touchingly takes on A Little Night Music's "Miller's Son".

As the evening progresses, Maria Friedman increasingly dominates, showing that she is every inch the star Sondheim spotted all those years ago, revealing a directness in her performance of songs such as "Losing My Mind" and Hamlisch's "Nothing", from A Chorus Line, that gives them life far beyond this cabaret setting. If her warmth has leavened the first half, her sheer dazzle illuminates the second. It's a lovely show.

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