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'Maria Friedman and Friends — Legacy' review — a soul-stirring concert commemorates musical theatre titans

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Stephen Sondheim’s death last November shook many of us to the core and provides a soul-stirring foundation to Maria Friedman’s exultant new show, which opened the same day as news broke that her superb Menier Chocolate Factory revival of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along will soon be seen in New York, starring Daniel Radcliffe.

In the meantime, Friedman honours not just Sondheim’s legacy but that of her friends Michel Legrand and Marvin Hamlisch, whose widow, Terre, took movingly to the stage at one point to recount what, indeed, her late husband did for love: no one-woman show, this latest offering from the abundantly awarded Friedman feels like a gathering of old friends, to co-opt a song title from Merrily that gets delivered before a hefty evening — well over 2 hours and 30 minutes – is over.

Friedman kicks things off in characteristically warm, welcoming style, giving initial pride of place to “Steve”, as she was long ago able to call him, before moving on to two other men whose output couldn’t have been more different: indeed, amid an evening overflowing with bounty, it might have been interesting to hear something about what precisely differentiated these three songwriting legends whose careers were so entirely distinct.

Friedman reprises songs she has done before – “Broadway Baby”, which comes with a telling anecdote that was verified for me at the interval by the singer’s sister Sonia, the venerable producer, and “Losing My Mind”, Friedman locating the wistful ache to a song from Follies that is bound to feature in the gala Sondheim evening that she is co-directing with Matthew Bourne on May 3.

Amidst an onstage retinue that includes the younger of her two sons, Alfie, newcomer Desmonda Cathabel impresses with the feisty determination of “The Miller’s Son”. Her performance prowess is matched by the younger Friedman, with Alfie ripping into “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” from Merrily, the very song Radcliffe will soon be tasked with Off-Broadway.

The “legacy” aspect of the title is revealed to have a dual meaning. Beyond reminding us of three defining artists (Legrand is said to have written music for some 500 films, which I wouldn’t have thought possible), a baggy evening is freeform enough to allow Friedman to pass the baton to the next generation.

They, in turn, are represented not only by Cathabel and by Friedman’s own son but by a charming teaching assistant from Dublin, Aoife Dunne, who had flown in that same evening, and by an array of performers from the Royal Academy of Music, who swell the ranks aptly enough when we get to Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line. That same musical finds Friedman inheriting Priscilla Lopez’s Tony-winning turn as Morales and delivering the comic song “Nothing”, San Juan in this iteration replaced by Hackney – where Friedman lives. (It helps that ‘Maria’ and ‘Morales’ scan equivalently.)

Menier regulars who have thrilled to this theatre’s revivals of Candide and She Loves Me may be amused and amazed to find the director of those two (more or less) non-Sondheim shows, Matthew White, partnering Friedman on “A Little Priest”, the first act closer to Sweeney Todd: the two are handed weaponry from the wings in keeping with their characters’ murderous instincts.

Keeping with the older generation, Ian McLarnon does a suitably rapid-fire “Buddy’s Blues” from Follies, and his shared rapport with Friedman over time connects up to the theme of connection that underlies the director David Babani’s evening as a whole. (Babani, of course, some while ago turned the Menier into a steady maker of musical hits.)

A playful back-and-forth with the audience at the start gave people the chance to shout out Sondheim titles to test whether there were any that had never been performed by any of the onstage assemblage, musical supervisor Theo Jamieson’s ace band included; Jamieson is on exuberant view throughout, his hands all but tearing up the piano. On that front, Paul Moylan on the double bass seemed to have a fairly exhaustive CV (not many people have even heard of The Frogs much less had anything to do with it).

And just when you think you’ve heard all the familiar numbers and then some, Friedman shifts gears with Joni Mitchell’s signature song, “Both Sides Now”, its lyric about never having known life and love at all here disproved by a star performer who communicates a shining awareness of both throughout.

Maria Friedman and Friends — Legacy is at the Menier Chocolate Factory to 17 April. Book Maria Friedman and Friends — Legacy tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Maria Friedman (Photo by Nobby Clark)

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