Review: ‘Old Friends’, Including Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Bernadette Peters And Damian Lewis, Knock It Out Of The Park For Stephen Sondheim

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Cameron Mackintosh, the London theatre owner and impresario, nixed the idea of having a host introduce artists performing at Tuesday’s one-night-only Old Friends tribute show honoring the legacy of musical theatre genius Stephen Sondheim, who died in November at age 91.

“All you need are Steve’s words and music, and our cast. They speak, or rather sing, for themselves,“ Mackintosh explained to Deadline before the star-studded event began at London’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre.

Worked like a treat. Thirty minutes saved, because Old Friends wasn’t lumbered with a host.

In any case, no one needed to introduce actress Julia McKenzie when she walked onto the stage, for it was she who, with Mackintosh producing, was part of an ensemble that super-spread Sondheim in the West End over four decades ago with a revue entitled Side By Side by Sondheim. 

She’s one of the composer and lyricist’s foremost interpreters. Within two seconds of McKenzie’s entrance, she was able to sing the words “Side by side” before the place erupted. Audience on its feet. Scribbled in a notebook is the phrase: McKenzie stopped show before it started.

When a show begins on such a high, where can it go? There were no worries on that score.

We got comedy, pizzazz, pathos and musical magic. During the interval someone was heard to utter “every number is history making.”

For once, that was no idle boast, even though there is a tendency to over-gush at these kind of affairs.

But, hey it’s not every night you get  to hear Judi Dench uncover new, heartfelt meaning in Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns” from A Little Night Music. Or, to be in the room when Haydn Gwynne (winner of Drama Desk and Theatre World awards for Billy Elliot on Broadway) redefined “Ladies Who Lunch,” from Company, and made it her own.

We, of course, remain humble servants to Patti LuPone who sang the same number, superbly, three years ago when she was in the company of Company next door at the Gielgud. She’s wowing Broadway audiences in the production’s transfer to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater.

Yes, history was also made when Michael Ball took on “Could I Leave You?” from Follies. “First time it’s ever been performed by a man; anywhere,” Ball shared with Deadline at the after-party, held over in Leicester Square at the Prince of Wales Theatre. 

He was nervous, he confessed.

Not evident when he sang; he knocked it out of the park, a phrase chosen for American readers.

Ball knocked it out of the park several times, in fact, partnering with Maria Friedman (also a director of Old Friends, with Matthew Bourne and choreographer Stephen Mear), performing delicious numbers from Sweeney Todd.

Ingenious staging of “Broadway Baby,” from Follies, had Julia McKenzie appear centre stage to sing, and then be abruptly — comically — upstaged by Bernadette Peters, and so on until a lineup of 10 Broadway Babies electrified the boards.

Take a bow Helena Bonham Carter, Rosalie Craig, Maria Friedman, Josefina Gabrielle, Amy Griffith, Haydn Gwynne, Bonnie Langford, Jenna Russell and the aforementioned McKenzie and Peters.

Mackintosh devised and curated Old Friends, there’s not a single dud in his selection.

Whether it’s Damian Lewis, Rob Brydon, Julian Ovenden and Siân Phillips vamping it up with “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; or Anna-Jane Casey, Langford and Peters contorting themselves by way of explaining the gimmicks used in their field of expertise as ecdysiasts; there was indeed, something for everyone…

A gentleman representing Sondheim’s estate, he requested that his name not be used here, told Deadline that the actress Janie Dee would forever be granted permission to perform Sondheim’s tongue-twisting “The Boy From …” “She was perfection,” he said.

Imelda Staunton, allowed time off from shooting new episodes of The Crown, in which she portrays Queen Elizabeth, reigned supreme performing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” from Gypsy.

These were Old Friends the capacity audience was delighted to spend an evening with, so much so ,they lingered for 20 minutes after the last artist left the stage.

The show was filmed, in order to transmit a live satellite feed to an audience at the nearby Prince Edward Theatre.

There is no deal in place with any of the artists and creatives for Old Friends to be broadcast, for now.

“There are discussions to be had,” said Mackintosh.

“I think the public might like to see it,” he added, smiling.

Hannah Waddingham (Ted Lasso) had been set to appear but had to withdraw because she’s suffering from an upper respiratory infection.

Here’s the full cast list:

The Company

Michael Ball, Helena Bonham Carter, Rob Brydon, Petula Clark, Rosalie Craig, Janie Dee, Judi Dench, Daniel Evans, Maria Friedman, Haydn Gwynne, Bonnie Langford, Damian Lewis, Julia McKenzie, Julian Ovenden, Bernadette Peters, Siân Phillips, Jon Robyns, Clive Rowe, Jenna Russell, Imelda Staunton, Charlie Stemp, Gary Wilmot and Michael D. Xavier


Shan Ako, Christine Allado, Holly-Anne Hull, Ashley Campbell, Anna-Jane Casey, Desmonda Cathabel, Josefina Gabrielle, Louis Gaunt, Amy Griffiths, Rob Houchen, Bradley Jaden, Ian McLarnon, Jeremy Secomb, Jordan Shaw and Matthew White

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Written by: tazz

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todayMay 4, 2022