Maria Friedman: Lenny and Steve, The Crazy Coqs, London ★★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Maria Friedman has come to be regarded as one of Britain’s foremost interpreters of Stephen Sondheim – both as actor and, more recently, a director, with her revival of Merrily We Roll Along.

Her directing career – continuing with Stepping Out at the Vaudeville Theatre and a forthcoming musical by Jonathan Harvey based on the life of Dusty Springfield – and a recurring TV role in EastEnders are possible reasons why one of the cabaret scene has been deprived for some time of one of its most engaging performers. Now, though, Friedman is back for a residency at Brasserie Zédel’s live venue, the Crazy Coqs.

Along with longtime musical director and collaborator Jason Carr, Friedman is reprising her show Lenny and Steve, celebrating the compositions of both Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. The combination is inspired by a decision to close the show with  Somewhere from West Side Story, upon which the two composers collaborated.

As a result, we are treated to numbers from On the Town and Wonderful Town, from New York, New York to One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man. But there are some lesser known Bernstein songs in there, too: the moving song So Pretty, composed as a protest against the Vietnam War, achieving a contemporary poignancy when paired with Take Care of This House, about the symbolic importance of the White House from the Broadway flop 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But it is, of course, the Sondheim numbers which produce the most emotional impact. Friedman’s rendition of Company’s Being Alive tugs at the heart strings, while the strains of Losing My Mind from Follies provides Friedman the opportunity to display her ability to tell a story within the confines of a torch song about obsessive love.

Between songs, Friedman is possesses that brand of self-deprecating charm unique to cabaret performers, talking oneself down in order to heighten the impact of the song performances. Whether Friedman is relating a story of receiving bullying heckles while walking on to the Drury Lane stage, or being cajoled by Cameron Mackintosh into singing standards for the delectation of the numbers’ original composers, ultimately the songs are the heroes of her stories. So they are here, too – and while she prefaces a performance of Not Getting Married with the rider that it is the hardest song ever written for a performer, and that we will stay here until she gets it right, the high-speed patter song goes off, of course, without a hitch. A prop-laden encore number, encompassing the multiple roles within Gee, Officer Krupke by way of hats, wigs and glasses, is not quite so polished – but all the more fun for that.

That Friedman excels in both comedic reading and dramatic, tragic performance is perhaps what allies her skills so closely to the Sondheim repertoire. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the show’s closing numbers, Send in the Clowns and, of course, ‘Somewhere’, the song that gave the show its theme. When she sings There’s a place for Us, Friedman may as well have been claiming this cabaret space for her, Carr, Bernstein and Sondheim. Together, the foursome create a sublime evening of song.