Since Side by Side by Sondheim first hit the West End in the mid ’70s, there have been countless compilation shows drawn from the American composer’s extensive stage work.
With that original show revived in London only recently, do we really need another one with yet more renditions of “Being Alive”, “Broadway Baby” and “Losing My Mind”?
In the case of Cadogan Hall’s first self-produced venture, running for just five performances this week, the answer is undoubtedly “Yes”. Sondheim addicts, and anyone wanting to learn a thing or two about song-writing, should make a beeline for this show. What Good Thing Going has in its favour is the participation of two stars with a bundle of Oliviers between them for their previous work on Sondheim, Maria Friedman and Daniel Evans, reunited from last month’s Sweeney Todd on the South Bank (what a shame Philip Quast couldn’t join them!).
Add to that sterling support from Graham Bickley and Mary Carewe, the experienced baton of David Firman and a chorus of students from Arts Ed and it has plenty to recommend it. It’s a shame then that I have to start with a gripe, although it’s a general one. The Musical Theatre really should address the issue of poor amplification which uglifies and distorts the human voice and makes big numbers incomprehensible. It seems to be a universal problem these days, outside of opera houses, with seemingly no technological advances having been made in this area in over 30 years. It was a problem in the recent Sweeney Todd and it’s high time that a spirit of improvement was introduced.
Balance between instrumentalists and vocalists can help and this show suffers at times from a no-holds-barred approach from the Royal Philharmonic who all but drown out the singers in places. That aside, this is a well put-together programme of songs by the Broadway genius, superbly performed. Simon Green, both narrator and director and no newcomer to Sondheim himself, drives the evening along with gusto, delivering David Benedict‘s witty script archly and definitely with an eye to the gallery.
Most of the material would be known to a Sondheim enthusiast but it’s a delight to hear less familiar pieces such as his first-ever song “I Must be Dreaming”, lovingly delivered by Friedman, and a short instrumental selection from the little-known film score “Stavisky”.
It’s good to hear Evans belt out “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods (after the poor performance in the Royal Opera’s recent studio production) and to see a Dot and George from different productions of Sunday in the Park with George (Friedman and Evans) sing together what is possibly Sondheim’s most stirring number, “Move On”. Carewe has a heartbreaking “In Buddy’s Eyes” and Bickley a haunting “I Remember” from Evening Primrose.
Nearly all the major shows are represented (although not Assassins or Pacific Overtures), the first act ending with a lengthy selection from the urbane and sophisticated A Little Night Music. A medley from that most dramatic work Sweeney Todd follows the interval. Built around a choral rendition of “Joanna”, it may lack bite but Friedman’s reprise of her recent success as Mrs Lovett with “The Worst Pies in London” adds flavour and brought the first-night house down.
Hit after hit in quick succession, without the time to reflect and take-in such wealth, means some loss of subtlety but, hey, an embarrassment of riches is no bad thing. And that’s what you get with this show an unending flow of the best that musical theatre has to offer with not a TV talent show winner in sight.