Menier Chocolate Factory Feb 2022 Maria Friedman & Friends-LegacyDirector/David Babani Lighting Paul Pyant Sound Gregory Clark Musical Director & Piano Theo Jamieson Double Bass/PaulMoylan Drums James Powell Maria Friedman/Ian McLarnon/MatthewWhite Desmonda Cathabe/Aoife Dunne/ Alfie Friedman Royal Academy of Music Choir ©Nobby Clark

Maria Friedman and Friends

Reviewer's rating

Maria Friedman closely collaborated with three composers who have died in recent years – Marvin Hamlisch, Michel Legrand and Stephen Sondheim. This long cabaret evening is devoted to some of their greatest songs, though the song card varies each night, as do the guest performers. Helming it all is Friedman herself, who provides autobiographical link material, both funny and poignant, as well as singing the most songs. But she is complemented to an exceptional standard by her ‘friends’, singers of different generations, and also with some choral back-up by The Royal Academy of Music Choir. Musical direction from the piano comes from the wholly outstanding Theo Jamieson and his bassist and percussionist, Paul Moylan and Joe Evans.

Let’s start with the five-star positives of which there are several. The playing and arrangements by the band are just sensational, making you hear things in the songs you never heard before, while never overpowering the singers. Jamieson has an independent composer’s skill here as well as a performer’s virtuosity, which is quite rare in musical directors. Paul Pyant, the lighting director has been showcasing this repertory for fifty years and knows when to keep it simple. The concentric proscenium arches all decked out with lightbulbs change from one bold colour to another and then he leaves the singers and players to add precision to mood on an uncluttered stage. This kind of synergy is at the centre of cabaret art. It shows perhaps that this evening began at Crazy Coqs.

The beating heart and hardest challenges of the evening are in the Sondheim numbers, as you might expect. His loss is the most raw and recent and that intensifies Friedman’s own exuberant singing and anecdotal eloquence. She demonstrates how if you trust the ‘story’ in each song you won’t go far wrong, whether it’s ‘Broadway Baby’, which was Friedman’s own debut triumph over adversity, or ‘Losing My Mind’, the climax of the evening. But everyone else also chose very demanding repertory, particularly the fearless young singers, Desmonda Cathabel, who delivered ‘The Miller’s Son’ with cool panache, and Alfie Friedman who truly embodied ‘Franklin Shepard Inc.’, one of the very hardest Sondheim numbers to keep on track. Ian McLarnon and Matthew White partnered Friedman sympathetically in a number of duets and took their solo moments too.

While it was a pleasure to hear the items by Hamlisch and Legrand, and there was no falling away in technical skill, the presence of these items felt at the end of 150 minutes to be just like too many courses on the menu. Nothing you could object to, but the emotional effect of the whole is a tad diminished when there are so many individual emotional highs. That said, Friedman is a natural in taking the mood of the audience with her, and she dealt with a rogue mobile phone in a really admirable way – firm, but funny too and not crushing.

You cannot fault the music-making one bit, but the show would have even more impact if it had been only Sondheim and running for ninety minutes without an interval. Then they could have provided a fine alternative, accessible choice to the Sondheim tribute planned by Cameron Macintosh for May, where so many are bound to be disappointed in their search for tickets.

So more shows like this, please, but a little more structure and sequencing next time.