How do you encapsulate the work of a true theatrical genius? It's not very hard when you have a stage, an orchestra, bucketloads of A-list stardom, and of course…. Sondheim.
Just when you thought London's glittering West End couldn't get any better, we have been generously bestowed a great (correction ‘Grand') Broadway show! A fabulous, handpicked selection of Broadway and West End stars sumptuously and collectively paying tribute to the grand and legendary Stephen Sondheim. Playing at Shaftesbury Avenue's Gielgud Theatre (Sondheim theatre's neighbour), Old Friends packs an enormously evocative and mostly tender punch. It's a celebrated tribute and almost emotional farewell but ‘never goodbye' to the man who gave us everything we love about theatre.
Over the decades, across countries and continents, theatre in its purely magical form would not be the same without visionary composers and lyricists. One such man needs little or most probably zero introduction. His name is synonymous in the theatrical history books as one of the greatest and most illustrious songwriters of the 20th century.
Stephen Sondheim has cemented his name within theatres across the globe large and small including captivating audiences young and old with his timeless music. His songs are a part of the very fabric of our lives. His lyrics hold a sentimentality that exists on stage and off. Sondheim had the ability to project what we feel and think into some of the greatest and most recognized musical numbers of all time. How lucky are we as West-End audiences to be presented with 39 of these evocative numbers from some of the most praised and coveted productions. Songs from Company, Gypsy, Follies, Sweeny Todd, West Side Story, A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park With George, to a name few, all make a worthy appearance echoing Sondheim's nuances throughout.
In a very deliciously constructed nutshell, Old Friends is essentially a love letter to the songs of Sondheim. There is no story, there is no dialogue, but an effervescent and sparkling selection of song after celebrated song from some of the greatest Sondheim musicals ever made. Each song represents something very special. They independently represent life, in its entirety. They have meaning, grace, and enough courage to muster up emotion in even the most stoic of theatre-goers.
Now for the star attractions. This is where it gets exciting. Old Friends is led by two Broadway heavyweights. Making her West End debut is Tony Award-winning Bernadette Peters. One can't fathom the enormity and privilege of seeing this petite powerhouse belt Sondheim's best-known songs to the tune of Alfonso Casado Trigo's wonderfully conducted orchestra. She is quite honestly a vision and nothing short of memorable. All those YouTube clips of ‘Send in the Clowns' and ‘Losing My Mind' from A Little Night Music and Follies respectively don't do her justice when witnessed live on stage. She embodies the very essence of Sondheim with her own unique sense of refinement and vivacity.
And then there is Lea Salonga, another Tony award-winning star who is no stranger to West End stages. Her presence is felt not only because of her powerful voice but her stage charisma is intensely heartfelt. Her emotion is in the way she moves and the way she conducts her energy in her voice. When she hits those high notes in Gypsy's Everything's Coming up Roses it's as if you have been transported to another dimension, it's rather thrilling to witness.
To not mention our own talent would be an injustice and credit needs to be given to the glorious Bonnie Langford who is London's treasured Westend star not only for her voice and on-stage persona but those high kicks and splits are always a joy to watch. She is cheeky and fabulous and her rendition of I'm Still Here proves that after 50 years on stage, she is certainly still here! One can't forget to mention a few of the co-starring roles namely the gloriously wonderful Clare Burt, Janie Dee and Joanna Riding together with the enormously bold and brilliant Gavin Lee, Bradley Jaden, Jeremy Secomb and Jason Pennycooke. These stars encapsulate the reason why people go to the theatre. It's because of performers like them and so many others that we keep on returning to our glorious London stages.
Old Friends is like a dinner party, it's a bubbly get-together of song, dance and laughter, a ‘thank you' to the man who made it all possible and for audiences who are able to witness the joy and company of his music.
Devised and produced by Cameron Mackintosh, Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends will run at the Gielgud Theatre for 16 weeks only and ends its run on 6 January 2024. Tickets from £20: here.
Review: David Simmons Photos: Danny Kaan