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Maria Friedman: Re-arranged

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Maria Friedman uses this revival of her great cabaret performance at the Menier Chocolate Factory earlier this year to announce another reprise: that of her Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd with Bryn Terfel, which is especially good news for those of us who missed it first time round.

Again, Friedman makes no bones about saying she owes her career to Sondheim, though she now starts the show with a rousing version of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Her brilliant articulation of “The Worst Pies in London” while juggling props and dealing with a “customer” from the audience is a highlight, topped only by the mini-opera, full of colour and piercing emotion, of a stunning “Sunday in the Park with Dot.”

Leonard Cohen has shown this year how to deliver the perfect concert. But I am warming more to Friedman’s slightly sloppy approach, schmoozing the front rows (she came perilously close to embarrassing me with Randy Newman’s hilarious “Short People”), fiddling with a water bottle, drooling over friends and family. She looks in prime health now, irresistibly impish and managing to be at once matronly (she’s filled out a bit) and dead sexy.

She flirts outrageously with another willing partner from the stalls in “I Want to Sleep With You Now” by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams and shoots the breeze as a wistful old lady “In Buddy’s Eyes” from Follies. David Babani’s production now runs for ninety minutes without an interval (just as well in this awkwardly accessible, uncomfortably rearranged auditorium) and Maria changes from black tulle to red silk (both frocks in plumptious décolleté) while the band under the irrepressible Gareth Valentine plays a Sweeney Todd selection.

This eleven-piece band is on equal footing with the singer, a genuine collection of virtuosi playing as one. As Friedman insists, her songs are all about the arrangements, a point best illustrated by David Cullen’s gorgeously dissonant version of “You Are My Sunshine,” Jason Carr’s skilful re-write of Michel Legrand’s “Le Trombone” and Chris Walker’s delicate, bluesy treatment of Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament.” Finally, though, it’s Friedman at full throttle we love, and of course she can’t resist trading an achingly restrained, semi-muted strut through “Broadway Baby” for a climactic, over-the-top assault on the summit. Like all the great singers, her offering to us is her own sacrifice, and she spreads her arms to drag us in. Take me home, Momma!

-Michael Coveney

Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from March 2008 when this production was at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

It’s always better with a band. The joy of Maria Friedman’s new solo show - Maria Friedman: Re-arranged - is that she struts her stuff backed by eleven highly visible musicians, all of whom are having a very good time. So is she. So, therefore, are we. It’s often easy to forget these days that musical theatre is primarily about making music, especially when the sound comes at you through a barrage of amplification systems.

Sure, Maria Friedman comes with the obligatory hand mike. But the mike’s a tool, not a hindrance and the great merit of this show is its delight in music, the exposition of the craft of song-makers as varied as Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach, Randy Newman and George Gershwin.

Three years ago, Friedman was about to open as Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White on Broadway when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She marks a full recovery, and something of a career re-launch, with this sumptuous cabaret, many of the items re-orchestrated by her favourite musical directors, including Michael Haslam who leads from the onstage keyboard, the composer Jason Carr and Simon Lee.

Her voice remains one of the purest and most unaffected on the musical stage. Its liquidity is consistent throughout the register. Most unusually in a singer, there is no distinction between her “head” voice and her “chest” voice; her technique is literally seamless, so every song she sings sounds exactly as it should. You cannot imagine it being sung, as it were, any other way. Which is a roundabout way of saying that criticism for once is not only superfluous but also unnecessary.

Her linking material, though, is of a slightly embarrassing personal nature, and not sufficiently “written”. All the material is in the songs. And if you sing such great stuff as Jacques Brel (“If You Go Away” is an absolute highlight) and Henry Purcell (“Dido’s Lament” has never sounded so piquant), you don’t need to have a nice little chat in between.

Ken Dodd sometimes says that his shows are educational; you go home and say to yourself, “that taught me a lesson\". Friedman really does challenge your appreciation of American composers like Jerry Herman, Charles Strouse and Jule Styne and also usefully reminds us, ahead of Marguerite, what a genius Michel Legrand is. Until now I thought of him as “Michel Lepetit,” and that’s all changed. But why no Lloyd Webber, I wonder?

- Michael Coveney


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