The night after the London Bridge atrocity, some nightingales sang in Sloane Square. Sondheim: Smiles Of A Summer Night, another Alex Parker/Alastair Knights concert, was exactly the right thing to permit reflection, defiance, and a sense of the spirit of London – indomitable, eclectic and richly rewarding. Orchestral enhancement of Sondheim melodies on a Sunday! Take Me To The World never seemed so apt.
Sondheim concerts are curious beasts. Sondheim’s compositions work so well because they are so ideally suited to the books and characters of the musicals in which they can be found. To make those idiosyncratic numbers, especially insightful solos, work out of context takes vision, skill and impeccable taste.
An orchestra helps.
Sondheim: Smiles Of A Summer Night, an Alex Parker Theatre Company production directed by Alastair Knights and conducted by Parker, played at Cadogan Hall tonight. Eight soloists, The Alex Parker Orchestra (30 gifted musicians) and The Summer Night Singers (a 12 piece ensemble) combined for a celebration of the music of Stephen Sondheim.
Given the horror of the night before, the Cadogan Hall audience was serious and subdued – at least at the start of the concert. By its end, Sondheim via Parker had worked magic, ably assisted by the vocal skills of the assembled performers and the musicality of the orchestra. The mood was jubilant, buoyant and tearful, as the final notes of Sunday from Sunday In The Park With George reverberated around the auditorium.
Knights’ conceit for the evening’s selection of songs was interesting – music that reflected the changing of the seasons. It’s a good idea for a concert although many of the choices for the particular seasons did not seem particularly apt. Why is Johanna from Sweeney Todd a winter song? Or why do Another Hundred People (Company) or No One Is Alone (Into The Woods) evoke Spring? Still, although some choices were odd, they were not unadventurous. (The Four Seasons theme permitted some exquisite uncredited lighting so was excuse enough!)
Most people have Sondheim favourites, and often feel disappointed if they don’t make it to the songlist at a concert. There are some songs which, frankly, I hope never to ever hear in concert again. There are others which are rarely heard in concert and which don’t turn up in either Side By Side By Sondheim or Putting It Together. I cannot recall ever hearing The Girls Of Summer outside of Marry Me A Little or Fear No More outside of The Frogs.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that it is a good idea to sing those songs out of context; but it is a novel one. One thing I am sure about though – there is never any point in supplementing singing Sondheim’s music with the dialogue that introduces or follows it. Dialogue depends upon character which depends upon situation and the audience’s understanding of the narrative and the character’s place in it. The lines between Desiree and Fredrick which lead into A Little Night Music‘s Send In The Clowns never work out of context. Dame Judi Dench, Hannah Waddingham and Audra MacDonald can make the song work on its own, and that should be enough.
That said, Send In The Clowns is a song I never need hear in concert again. Nor is I’m Calm from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, a character song that really only works in the show, when the audience is fully aware of the nervous but obsequious excesses of Hysterium who sings it. Not even Jordan Lee Davies’ considerable vocal chops and comic acting finesse could make the number as comphrensible and as funny as it should be out of context – and Sondheim knows, he tried.
Curiously, the other song from Forum, That Dirty Old Man, worked exceptionally well and I doubt I have ever heard it sung better than it was here – one of several revelatory numbers from Lucy Schaufer. Her exquisite soprano and expressive face made her a perfect battle axe for that song, as well as giving her sublime matriarchal grace in the glorious One More Kiss (from Follies), one of the true musical highlights of the evening, a moment of refined beauty that she shared with a luminous and vocally satisfying Lauren Joyanne Morris.
Morris has a true and vibrant Soprano, which she put to good use in her part in the trio Not Getting Married Today (Company). Her rendition of On The Steps Of The Palace (Into The Woods), another song that really needs its context to work properly, was nice, the final phrases especially well handled. It was, however, difficult not to wish that she had sung Green Finch Linnet Bird from Sweeney Todd, a song that is rarely sung well in performance but which Morris should have made glorious.
The standout performer of the evening was Fra Fee, fresh from The Ferryman, and in excellent voice and fine performance mode. His Multitude of Amys made one think the song could be restored to Company; he made it seem fresh and vital. His best moment, and the evening’s, came in the underrated Take Me To The World from the underrated Evening Primrose, a song Fee imbued with a gentle but ardent passion, culminating in a revelatory duet sequence with Davies, quite the most unexpected and touching moment of the evening.
Fee was also involved in the second best moment of the evening – the poignant Loving You from Passion – which he shared with Laura Pitt-Pulford, another superb performer. They certainly put passion into the song; beautiful singing, beautiful expression.
Not all of the performances were in that league. In some cases, there were staging issues (Opening Doors from Merrily We Roll Along), sometimes balance issues with the impressive orchestra (The Road You Didn’t Take from Follies; Epiphany from Sweeney Todd; Everybody’s Got The Right from Assassins), sometimes issues with tempi (Johanna and The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd from Sweeney Todd).
In other cases, the execution of rather iconic numbers was unimaginative. When you choose to do songs such as Not Getting Married Today, The Ladies Who Lunch (Company), Send In The Clowns, or No One Is Alone, something about the performance needs to be innovative, intriguing or inspiring. Merely hearing a song is rarely what a concert goer hopes – or should expect – from a concert such as this.
Davies’ rendition of the little known If You Can Find Me I’m Here (Evening Primrose) was the kind of moment that concerts are made for – a forgotten song being given new life. Schaefer’s curious gender reversal treatment of Johanna sounded gorgeous, although too rushed, and Janie Dee’s thoughtful Fear No More incited interest in The Frogs in much the same way as Tamsin Dowsett‘s full throttle A Parade In Town sent listeners to their homes wondering about the other glories of Anyone Can Whistle. Moments such as these were genuinely marvellous.
Experiencing Sondheim’s tunes with proper orchestral support is what a concert goer wants and the Alex Parker Orchestra certainly delivered in that respect. Rich colours in the phrasing, seductive strings, bright brassy tones and high, spirited woodwind flourishes – Parker extracted sublime timbres and insinuating pulses with ease. The bossa nova in Ladies Who Lunch was particularly memorable.
There was excellent vocal work from the Summer Nights Singers too (outstanding top soprano notes, true and thrilling) – the final full company rendition of the rousing anthem Sunday was intoxicatingly beautiful. A perfect end to a perfectly sweet, and sometimes overpoweringly glorious, evening of Sondheim.