Review: Sondheim's 'suitably extravagant' London birthday gala

'HEY, OLD FRIENDS!' Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Sunday October 25 Lately it seems you only have to blink and there’s another Stephen Sondheim revival, concert version or tribute show. Not that I’m complaining: Sondheim is musical theatre’s greatest living composer and lyricist so any chance to hear his work performed live is fine by me. And yes I should probably say ‘arguably’ when it comes to labelling him the greatest in his field but there’s really no argument as far as I'm concerned. John Shovelton and the company in BEAUTIFUL GIRLS. Photo: Darren Bell This being the great man’s 85th birthday year, celebrating his genius is more apt than ever. It may be seven years since he premiered a new show (2008’s Road Show, itself a rejig of Bounce from five years earlier) but the mastro has gifted us with A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd and Follies and Sunday In The Park With George and Into The Woods and much, much more - more, in fact, than any other composer you might care to mention. I like an Andrew Lloyd Webber showstopper as much as the next theatregoer and Miss Saigon has moments of soaring brilliance (you can, however, keep the dirgey Les Miserables) but who else can boast a CV that includes Send In The Clowns, I’m Still Here, Putting It Together, Not While I’m Around and countless other tunes that mix intricate melodies with tongue-twistingly clever lyrics? As a one-off salute and running for a suitably extravagant three hours, Hey, Old Friends! took its title from Merrily We Rolled Along and - with a huge cast backed by a full orchestra and a bunch of very enthusiastic theatre school students - it rolled merrily through Sondheim’s enviable back catalogue. Bonnie Langord and Anton Du Beke in CAN THAT BOY FOXTROT! Photo: Daren Bell Held in the majestic Theatre Royal Drury Lane (where the considerably less sublime crowdpleaser Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is enjoying a very lucrative run) it was a Sunday night gala event to raise cash for the Stephen Sondheim Society’s educational programmes and the Silver Line charity helpling for older people as well as a very happy Happy Birthday to the man whose work has been tackled before by many of the performers. Sondheim veterans included Millicent Martin, magnificently funny on I Never Do Anything Twice, and Daniel Evans Sunday-ing in the park with George to stirring effect. Kim Criswell tore the roof off I’m Still Here and Michael Xavier gave everything he’s got (which is rather a lot) to Being Alive. Disappointments: Sondheim stalwart Maria Friedman was nowhere to be seen and Julia McKenzie introduced other acts but didn’t sing a note herself. Embarrassments: At least one backing dancer put every foot wrong and a baffled-looking Rula Lenska hit just about every wrong note. Surprises: Bonnie Langford, paired with Anton Du Beke, brought the house down with  some stunning dance moves and Jason Manford did a very funny Pirelli in the Sweeney Todd shave-off. Top marks too to Tracie Bennett for her brilliant Broadway Baby, a setlist that mixed lost treasures with more obvious numbers and to Martin Milnes and Dominic Ferris, who rose to the challenge of covering 30-plus songs in five minutes with the kind of madcap daredevilry that would surely have made Sondheim chuckle into his beard had he been able to attend. RATING: 4/5 www.sondheim.org www.thesilverline.org.uk Words by SIMON BUTTON.