Following the legendary composer’s death in November 2021, old friends of Stephen Sondheim, Cameron Mackintosh and others staged a one night memorial concert at the theatre which was recently renamed in his honour. Tickets for Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends were so in demand that a second theatre was commandeered to hold an overspill audience that watched via live stream.
Now, some 17 months later, the production moves next door, to the Gielgud Theatre. But will sustaining a longer West End run be trickier than a one-night event aimed at Sondheim enthusiasts? And will a cast without names like Judi Dench and Julia McKenzie still manage to pull in the crowds?
To be fair, this new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends does have a dazzling cast of musical theatre royalty, headlined by Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga, and also includes the likes of Janie Dee, Jason Pennycooke and Clare Burt to name just a few.
It is in reality, a concert, pulling together some 40 odd of Sondheim’s greatest songs, but it is remarkably well put together, easily transitioning from soaring ballads (Loving You) to fast paced comedy numbers (Getting Married Today) with barely a beat in between. And while we might go from Company to Sunday in the Park With George without any form of link, other segments of the show linger longer on particular shows, such as Into The Woods and Sweeney Todd.
The first act flies by, each new number delighting the audience and reminding us all why Sondheim was such a significant figure in musical theatre. The second act does seem to move more slowly, despite a similar set up to the first. Perhaps this is due to the choice of songs, or maybe the lack of variation in performers.
Bernadette Peters takes the lion share of songs throughout, but it’s particularly noticeable in the second act. Peters is of course a huge Broadway star, but with talents like Christine Allado and Joanna Riding on stage there was definitely more opportunity to shake things up a bit. With a programme costing £12, it might have been nice to include who performs each number for audiences not familiar with all the stars on stage.
Most of it works great, ‘A Weekend in the Country’ and ‘Send in the Clowns’ being particular highlights. But there are moments that don’t, ‘You Gotta Get a Gimmick’ for example felt quite flat, even though it had all the right ingredients to be a showstopper.
Lea Salonga is undoubtedly the main reason to see Old Friends; powerful vocals, such as in ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, make this a theatrical event not to be missed. Though there are many other wonderful performances to enjoy too, Janie Dee performing ‘The Boy From…’ is hilariously wonderful, and although usually accompanying another performer, Jac Yarrow’s beautiful voice always shines through.
With a gorgeous sounding orchestra positioned above the stage, there’s little in the way of set, but George Reeve’s projections provide some visual interest and Warren Letton’s lighting design does make this feel like the ‘Great Big Broadway Show’ the marketing suggests it to be.
This longer run of Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends is definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many theatrical greats all on stage at the same time. It’s appeal beyond this limited engagement is questionable, but in terms of honouring the work of Stephen Sondheim it’s a triumph, and may just introduce audiences to the wonderful sound of his musicals that are not often heard on London stages.