Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends | Live Show Review

Matt Wolf
Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Matthew Bourne, an avowed newcomer to directing Sondheim, has provided a gloss and sheen that allow the show to connect with those ordinary mortals who may not be able to quote every lyric

The Company of Old Friends (photo: Danny Kaan)
The Company of Old Friends (photo: Danny Kaan)

Not a day goes by that Stephen Sondheim doesn’t seem somewhere a part of my life, and I’m sure countless others would say the same. His ongoing presence some two years after his death late in 2021, aged 91, seems doubly evident in the theatre world just now, with a veritable explosion of Sondheim this season in New York and, closer to home, a proper West End run for last year’s gala revue Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends.

This London celebration is the brainchild of Cameron Mackintosh, a genuine old friend of the legendary composer-lyricist who has produced several Sondheim-themed revues over the years: those include Side by Side by Sondheim, where I first made Sondheim’s acquaintance as a teenager during the show’s feted Broadway transfer, and Putting It Together, which had separate runs Off Broadway and on.

I attended the one-off gala of Old Friends in May 2022, which boasted the sort of cast (Judi Dench, for one) whom you couldn’t imagine committing to a run eight times a week. So the astonishing thing about this current iteration – next door, as it happens, to the Mackintosh-owned Sondheim Theatre – is that so much time-honoured material should feel so remarkably fresh.

The company are visibly energised by a Merrily entr’acte that raises the roof

For that, credit a dazzling array of talent who understand this work to their bones, alongside two genius directors in Matthew Bourne, working ‘side by side’ with Julia McKenzie. Bourne, an avowed newcomer to directing Sondheim, has provided a gloss and sheen that allow the show to connect with those ordinary mortals who may not be able to quote every lyric. McKenzie, by contrast, was in her day the supreme Sondheim interpreter of Follies, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods – and was incandescent in all three.

Her presence on this occasion surely helped the cast craft the narrative arcs of more than 40 songs. It’s not enough merely to hit the notes, and Sondheim always spoke very sensibly of preferring actors who sing to the other way round. What counts is an ensemble who can communicate the often troubling or bittersweet or sometimes flat-out hilarious mood (and key) changes on display: this company does McKenzie’s stewardship of Sondheim proud.

First among equals is surely Bernadette Peters, an ageless 75 whom I’ve seen across a handful of Sondheim shows in New York but who, until now, has never had a proper West End run. Woven into the proceedings more fully than she was last May, Peters shares with the late Barbara Cook an aching tristesse that reinvents both ‘Send in the Clowns’ and ‘Losing My Mind’. (She’s also hilarious opposite the invaluable Bradley Jaden in the Into the Woods sequence, here playing a role denied her when she originated the Witch on Broadway in 1987.)

Lea Salonga has done her Sondheim away from Broadway or the West End, but her clarion pipes turn out to be perfect for both Mrs Lovett and Madame Rose, and there’s a neatness to Salonga returning to the West End under the auspices of Mackintosh who launched her career in 1989 with Miss Saigon.

One can’t do justice to all the talent on view. It’s nonetheless worth singling out Gavin Lee, whose brilliant ‘Could I Leave You?’, from Follies, is its own one-act play, and Clare Burt (who replaced the late Haydn Gwynne), whose ‘The Ladies who Lunch’ is ripped from the gut, the performer doubling over as if in pained recognition of the song’s pulse-racing realisation that ‘everybody dies’.

Jac Yarrow, Janie Dee, Joanna Riding and the ceaselessly game Bonnie Langford are just a few of the others visibly energised by Alfonso Casado Trigo’s conducting and the lustrous sound of an orchestra that all but raises the roof with the Merrily We Roll Along entr’acte. Sondheim himself, of course, gets the last word. And that seems entirely right and just, his bequest guaranteed to live among and within us day after day after day till the days go by.

Production credits

Stephen Sondheim music, lyrics

Cameron Mackintosh deviser

Cast Bernadette Peters, Lea Salonga, Clare Burt, Janie Dee, Bradley Jaden, Bonnie Langford, Gavin Lee, Joanna Riding, Jac Yarrow et al

Direction, staging Matthew Bourne, Julia McKenzie

Musical supervision Stephen Brooker

Musical arrangements Stephen Metcalfe

Conductor Alfonso Casado Trigo

Choreography Stephen Mear

Set Matt Kinley

Lighting Warren Letton

Sound Mick Potter

Costumes Jill Parker

Projections George Reeve

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today