Sunday, November 01, 2015

HEY, OLD FRIENDS! Sondheim's 85th Birthday Gala at Drury Lane

Now here is a something you don't see often these days... a Sunday all-star gala charity event.  Last Sunday we went to see HEY, OLD FRIENDS! an 85th birthday gala celebrating the career of Stephen Sondheim at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s it seemed there was one every other weekend, mostly fundraisers for AIDS charities.  The same faces usually were in the cast and one got used to the curate's egg quality of the shows but there were some that live long in the memory: the all-day THING-A-THON, the Ray Cook memorial concert A COOK'S TOUR which ended with Angela Lansbury and Beatrice Arthur singing their "Bosom Buddies" duet from MAME and SUNDAY WITH SONDHEIM, directed by Julia McKenzie at the Shaftesbury.

The good old days of charity events seem to have died out so it was fun to step back in time to see this one.  26 years before I had seen another Sondheim tribute show at the same theatre - and a couple of charity gala stalwarts were also in this one!  Step forward Bonnie Langford, Lorna Dallas and Robert Meadmore.  I am sure Ned Sherrin, Elaine Stritch, Denis Quilley, Martin Smith, Dursley McLindon and Eartha Kitt would like to have appeared again had they been able to.

But back to 2015... the show was well staged by Bill Deamer who also choreographed in his lively if slightly generic style and apart from the longueurs that always happen when Nicholas Parsons appears on stage, the show moved along at a good pace.  Unlike some of the old concerts there didn't appear to be a through-line, songs were dropped in next to others from all across Sondheim's career, only towards the end was there an obvious trio of comedy numbers followed by Julia McKenzie introducing the final selection of 11 o'clock numbers (although the Sondheimite in me noted that FOLLIES' "Broadway Baby" and "I'm Still Here" are more like 8.25 and 9.30 numbers).

Ah, Julia.  The woman who helped to make me a theatre fan thanks to her performance as 'Miss Adelaide' in GUYS AND DOLLS and whose status as one of the great West End leading ladies seems to be diminishing in some people's minds in favour of her television appearances.  She was one of the show's comperes tonight, teamed with her friend and SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM co-star Millicent Martin, and although Millie gamely picked her way through "I Never Do Anything Twice", Julia didn't sing.  I fear those days are gone now which is quite a sad thing to contemplate.  Deamer tweeted this rehearsal picture of him, Julia and Millie side by side, by side.

So... highlights?  Quite a few actually.  There was a rousing version from Joseph Shovelton of "Beautiful Girls" featuring a walk-down of the night's female stars but as we were in the vertiginous balcony seats I couldn't make out who half of them were!  Anita Harris used her tremulous tone to good effect singing the wistful "Take Me To The World" from EVENING PRIMROSE - it made me wonder if any theatre director would ever have the mad / brilliant idea of adapting this Sondheim tv musical to the stage as a one-act musical?  There was a surprising inclusion of INTO THE WOODS' "The Last Midnight" which was belted out to the chandelier by Rosemary Ashe who also had great fun with Laura Pitt-Pulford in the camp duet that is "There's Always A Woman" cut from ANYONE CAN WHISTLE.

There were other good pairings with Daniel Evans, Simon Green and Michael Peavoy singing "Pretty Lady" from PACIFIC OVERTURES and Evans was then joined by Anna Francolini for "Move On" from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE which was topped by them being joined by the Arts Educational students to sing a wonderful choral "Sunday".   I wasn't the only one a-blub as Julia McKenzie sounded very emotional after it too.  Inexplicably this did not end the first act but McKenzie introduced Sally Ann Triplet (who played the younger Julia in the '87 FOLLIES) for a lengthy "Lucy and Jessie" from the same show.  It outstayed it's welcome as did Triplett's slashed gown - I kept being reminded of the Forbidden Broadway lyric: "flashing some guy / with my Stubby Kaye thigh".

The second act highlights included Bonnie Langford - yes Bonnie Langford - dancing up a storm with Anton Du Beke from "Strictly Come Dancing" wherein she did the splits and hung upside down from him. Ms Langford is 51!  Charity gala veteran Lorna Dallas gave us a lovely version of "In Buddy's Eyes", she had been introduced by Anita Dobson who said Dallas had been off the scene for a while with personal issues, illness maybe?  She seemed genuinely touched by her ovation.

As I said earlier Millicent Martin sparkled in her solo number "I Never Do Anything Twice" which she first sang nearly 40 years ago in SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM and she radiated pure star quality.  Her number was only topped by Julia McKenzie watching her exit into the wings before saying "And she can still walk unaided" which brought the house down!  After that it was time for the afore-mentioned 11 O'Clock Number section - Tracie Bennett and Charlotte Page oversung "Broadway Baby" and "Losing My Mind" to an alarming degree but luckily Haydn Gwynne (supported by Daniel Evans) sang a lovely, rueful "Send In The Clowns" while Kim Criswell socked over "I'm Still Here".  Finally it was left to the marvellous Michael Xavier to give us an impassioned "Being Alive", all the better for being sung as in COMPANY with the rest of the cast chipping in little asides during the song's build-up.

All in all it was an enjoyable night which also raised money for the Silver Line charity and the Stephen Sondheim Society.


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