The theme at Menier Chocolate Factory in London Bridge at the moment is legends as three legendary composers are paid tribute to by a legend in her own right. Three-time Olivier award winner Maria Friedman honours the legacies of Marvin Hamlisch, Michel Legrand and Stephen Sondheim in this new show, having worked closely with all three of them over the course of her glittering career.
Debuting at Crazy Coqs at Zedel, this show has now transferred to the Menier where it has already announced two extensions. With somebody as well regarded as Maria leading this, you would surely have high expectations for the show. Suffice to say, she didn't disappoint.
The evening kicked off with Maria's beautiful vocal on 'Being Alive' from Company being heard off-stage as she made her entrance. What followed was a packed two hours of acting, storytelling and song. Maria took us through the iconic songbooks of the three departed icons telling stories about her experiences with them in-between. Her natural knack for recounting a good story was mesmerising to watch and added to the emotion of honouring these lost legends. From hilarity to being told to "Get off the stage" before she first performed 'Broadway Baby' to more poignant moments as she recounted the loss of her mother, this was a night where tears were guaranteed - be them through laughter or sorrow.
The beauty of Maria Friedman in this show is the way it felt like she was inviting us in to her living room rather than perform to an audience of people she didn't know personally. From kicking off her shoes to talking to audience members collectively and individually, and even (jokingly) chastising one of them when their phone went off. Tongue firmly in cheek, Patti LuPone would have been proud of the interaction which only added to the unique factor of the evening.
Maria Friedman & Friends was not just a title - Maria was joined by a company of incredibly talented performers throughout the evening. They didn't just appear for a sole number, often sharing the spotlight with her and sometimes dominating the stage while Maria happily stood back. Her old friends Ian McLarnon and Matthew White both showed their immeasurable talent through performances of their own.
The remainder of Marias guests were all making their debuts on stage, continuing in the legacy of Stephen Sondheim to give a platform to new talent, declaring how vital it is that they be given a platform, considering they graduated into such an uncertain industry. Maria announced her guest Aoife Dunne with the news she has to fly in from Ireland every night to perform in the show before flying back each night. Judging by the calibre of her performance of 'I Know Things Now', it is more than worth the trip!
Desmonda Cathabel demonstrated a beautiful voice throughout the evening - none more so that on her spellbinding solo 'The Millers Son', while Maria's own son Alfie Friedman proved the talent runs deep in that family as he delivered a showstopping performance of 'Franklin Shepard, Inc' from Merrily We Roll Along (of which a New York revival produced by Maria has just been announced) bringing the house down on one of the undoubted highlights of the evening.
A choir from the Royal Academy of Music provided some joyful harmonies through the evening, ensuring every inch of the Menier stage, and often the audience, were bursting with life and sound. 'I Hope I Get It' from A Chorus Line was brilliantly recreated with the exceptional young cast while all 15 performers joined forces for a hauntingly beautiful rendition of 'Sunday'. Fantastic music arrangements through the evening came courtesy of Theo Jamieson accompanied by Paul Moylan and James Powel, with clever new twists on classics and different numbers merging into one.
With direction from David Babani and gorgeous lighting design from Paul Pyant, this was a production for the senses with far more than the flawless vocals lifting these numbers. Scenes from some of the shows were played out on stage with Maria and Matthew Todd making us feel like we were on Fleet Street with their genius performance of 'A Little Priest' from Sweeney Todd, while Maria became Dot completely for a performance for the title number from Sunday In The Park With George. As the show drew to a close, Maria upped the ante with a phenomenal version of 'Losing My Mind' from Follies - utterly sensational to witness, it really was jaw-droppingly good.
To say this was a special show would be a serious understatement. Not your everyday concert, this was a true celebration of life, love and the incredible songbooks these three heavyweights have left behind. The setlist, design of the show and of course the incredible talent, not just from Maria but from the predominantly young cast ensured an evening that was already full of heart was completely bursting with it. Early in the evening, Maria talked about current world events and how blessed we are to be free. This heavenly evening was a beautiful reminder of that.
If the intent of Maria Friedman & Friends was to honour the legacies of Sondheim, Hamlisch and Legrand, Maria not only fulfilled this completely but continued it herself, ensuring her own legacy continues to be outstanding.
Maria Friedman & Friends plays at Menier Chocolate Factory until April 17th. Tickets from www.menierchocolatefactory.com
Photos by Nobby Clark