If proof be needed, and I doubt that seriously it is, that the West End is not currently over-blessed with male musical theatre stars, then the Charity Gala Performance in aid of The Silver Line and the Stephen Sondheim Society, Hey, Old Friends, an 85th Birthday Tribute to Stephen Sondheim, which played at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane last evening certainly provided it.

As a pean to the fabulous range of oft-underused female musical theatre talent in London, Hey, Old Friends could hardly have been better conceived. The range and versatility of the women at work on the stage was impressive indeed, bookmarked by a superbly sung Beautiful Girls (Joseph Shovelton restoring faith to that song after the disastrous outing it had in the Follies concert at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this year) which kicked off proceedings proper, and Michael Xavier’s impeccable and impassioned delivery of Being Alive (in what must have been the best open audition for the role of Bobby in Company anywhere in the world).

These kind of fund-raising concerts are very difficult to pull off, partly because they have so many masters to serve: the worthwhile charities which deserve support; the fans who want to see their favourite stars in action (usually singing whatever they first saw them sing twenty or thirty years ago); the music and theatricality of the compositions on show; the aficionados who want to see “fresh interpretations” and not just of “the classics”; and the nostalgic glow of previous concerts and productions.

Hey, Old Friends managed the balance better than most and, although there were too many speeches about the charities (mostly delivered by the delightful, but now very slow, Nicholas Parsons, but also by Dame Esther Rantzen who, unsurprisingly, was a sparkling speaker) there was also, and most critically, superb musical accompaniment from Gareth Valentine and his skilful Concert Orchestra.

The music of Stephen Sondheim is complex and often difficult, not just to sing but to play, and Valentine ensured that the one constant of the evening was outstanding orchestral texture and support. Happily Gareth Owen’s sound design ensured almost uniformly good balance throughout because, of course, lyrics are as important in Sondheim as tunes.

There was a charming mix of reverence and irreverence as well, making the audience feel specially entertained and complicit with the in-jokes. The warm up prelude, People Who Like Sondheim (performed with zing by Kit and McConnel) was good fun and the duo appeared throughout as a kind of Sondheim Statler and Waldorf with witty and barbed repartee. In the second Act though, one of the unarguable surprise sensations of the evening was a five minute romp through 33 Sondheim compositions, “Ladies and gentlemen may we have your attention please…” presented with real style and panache by Martin Milnes and Dominic Ferris. These cabaret contributions provided some much needed innovative content.

The Milnes and Ferris contribution did, however, raise a question which often arises in these celebratory Sondheim concerts: Sondheim has himself overseen a medley of some of his greatest hits, the remarkable Conversation Piece from Side By Side By Sondheim and yet it almost never is heard in concert. Why? And especially in a concert like this, which brought back two of the original stars of Side By Side By Sondheim, Julia McKenzie and Millicent Martin, bringing, therefore, thoughts of that show to the fore.

Millicent was in splendid form, delivering a joyful reprise of I Never Do Anything Twice which rightly brought the house down and made one pine to see her take a turn at Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. McKenzie, sadly, did not sing a solo note, but her dignified presence and hilarious reference to Martin still “walking unaided” added wistful pleasure and evoked very warm memories of her Sondheim career associations.

It has to be said that some of the song choices were very odd. Treats seemed few and far between in the first Act, but when they came, they were especially rewarding: Marianne Benedict’s free soprano in Comedy Tonight; Rosemary Ashe and Laura Pitt-Pulford enjoying unleashing their inner bitches in There’s Always A Woman; Ashe, again, powerfully triumphant in a smashing Last Midnight; Anna Francolini, tender and focussed in Move On; a soaring, choral Sunday; and then the sparkling, unstoppable Sally Ann Triplett in a vibrant and sassy Lucy and Jessie.

Act Two was far more engaging and consistently good fun, despite also featuring the evening’s lowest points: a dull and sometimes out-of-tune Old Friends from seven previous winners of the Sondheim Society Student Performer Of The Year Award; an unbalanced and mostly unfunny Come Play Wiz Me (Tiffany Graves wasted but delicious nonetheless); and Rula Lenska demonstrating why Ah! But Underneath is not Sondheim’s greatest work and musical theatre not her speciality.

Lenska was especially brave to take on that number coming, as it did, in the wake of Bonnie Langford’s spectacularly showy routine, complete with Anton Du Beke as hapless prop, Can That Boy Foxtrot! Langford was magnificent, singing, dancing and acrobatically astounding continuously throughout – fit twenty-year olds would be hard pressed to match Langford’s stamina and skill as was on show here.

The programme ended with a set of songs dubbed “11 O’Clock Numbers” – Broadway Baby, Send In The Clowns, Losing My Mind, I’m Still Here and Being Alive. In fact, none of those songs are really “11 O’Clock Numbers” although all are capable of stopping shows. And each was given memorable interpretations here.

Tracie Bennett, in full energiser battery mode, powered her way through Broadway Baby, showing off pipes as fierce as pins. Her “Cash Only” cry was electric. Haydn Gwynne tried unsuccessfully to oust the notion of Judi Dench singing Send In The Clowns in concert, but still managed a unique and heartfelt interpretation which showed, yet again, the inherent power of Sondheim’s composition.

Charlotte Page was thrilling and vocally assured in the very difficult Losing My Mind (and acutely observed the other side to Follies’ Sally, earlier characterised by Lorna Dallas in a deeply felt In Buddy’s Eyes); Kim Criswell, with her usual vocal pyrotechnics, smashed I’m Still Here out of the park. Five, impressive and widely different talents, followed by Xavier’s powerful finale, Being Alive. By the end of this sequence, the variety and dominance of Sondheim as a composer was manifestly established.

Throughout the evening, the stars received substantial vocal and choreographic support from students from the Musical Theatre School, Arts Ed. Vocally, there were no complaints, with the assembled mass of clad-in-black artists-in-the-making providing excellent harmonic and melodic support. Eight young men, perhaps more, also provided ensemble dance support, particularly in showy numbers like Can That Boy Foxtrot! and Lucy and Jessie. These routines, choreographed by the concert’s director, Bill Deamer, would have benefited from being more masculine and less limp jazz hand, but all were executed with a degree of precision and synchronicity which is a real testament to the skill of the young performers.

This was a relaxed celebratory concert which showcased the tangible skill of many woman who have not been seen on West End theatres as much as they might be. It made one wonder what the next production in London of a Sondheim musical might be? Michael Xavier in Company? A full-scale Follies? Ashe and Pitt-Pulford in Putting It Together? The long awaited Sondheim on Sondheim? A new revue written by Milnes and Ferris?

As the songs almost say: Sondehim is still here; no need to Move On; There’s Always A Woman to remind you, vocally and theatrically, of Being Alive.

Four stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.