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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we continue to review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Old Friends
BBC I-Player December 2023

A star-filled salute to Stephen Sondheim is a thing never to be missed, and there is much in this concert from May 2022 (recorded for the BBC and now available online) to attract the Sondheimite.

And even if I can, at the end of this review, point you toward a couple of even better alternatives, I'm not going to reject this one for being merely very good.

Producer Cameron Mackintosh assembled an international cast for a one-off concert to salute his late friend and raise money for the Sondheim Foundation, which provides scholarships to music students.

(As it turned out, the project took on a further life, and became the basis for an extended West End run, with a largely new cast, in the autumn of 2023.)

The 2022 version features (alphabetically) Michael Ball, Rob Bryden, Petula Clark, Rosalie Craig, Janie Dee, Judi Dench, Daniel Evans, Maria Friedman, Haydn Gwynne, Bonnie Langford, Julia McKenzie, Bernadette Peters, Imelda Staunton well, you get the idea.

Some get solo spots, some are relegated to the chorus (if you blink, you'll miss Helena Bonham Carter).

Highlights include Judi Dench quietly stopping the show with an understated and crystalline Send In The Clowns and Bernadette Peters doing it again with a pulling-all-the-stops-out Losing My Mind.

Imelda Staunton's Everything's Coming Up Roses gives a taste of the obsessive madness she introduced to Madame Rose in Gypsy in 2015. while Michael Ball and Maria Friedman dance lightly through a Sweeney Todd medley.

Those bright spots apart, though, it has to be admitted than many of the other numbers are adequate but not much more than that.

Bernadette Peters once again fails to convince me that Children Will Listen is a good song, and Everybody Ought To Have A Maid only comes alive with the surprise appearance of Sian Philips among the dirty old men.

Haydn Gwynne is too visibly trying too hard at The Ladies Who Lunch. Petula Clark has fun with Sondheim's invaluable gift to female singers of a certain age, I'm Still Here, but you'll have seen it done at least as well by almost any other female singer of a certain age.

A young chorus filling the stage with music in the quintet version of Tonight only gives us time to realize that the power of that moment is all in Bernstein's music, not Sondheim's lyrics, and for the first time ever in my experience of the song the exquisite harmonies of Sunday do not move me to tears.

Watch this and enjoy it. But then go to YouTube for the Zoom-style Sondheim 90th Birthday Salute (reviewed HERE) for, among other things, the best versions of The Miller's Son, Buddy's Blues and Someone In A Tree that I've ever seen, along with a take-no-prisoners Ladies Who Lunch.

And then find the 'Six Divas in Red' sequence from the Sondheim 80th Birthday Salute, to have Patti LuPone, Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters, Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie and Elaine Stritch knock your socks off with one once-in-a-lifetime performance after another.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Old Friends 2023
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