The contribution of Stephen Sondheim to musical theatre was commemorated in a one-off tribute show last year, following his death in 2021. Rather than being placed in moth balls, Cameron Mackintosh clearly decided that it might do well at the box office. It was an opportunity too good to be missed. Hence, the show has now been revived and recast to join the ranks of West End musicals, arranged thematically to include some of the most memorable numbers from the repertoire that has sustained Sondheim’s reputation as one of the greatest composers and lyricists of his time.
A glittering show packed with life, energy and outstanding talent
He is the unifying element in a production that moves from one show to the next. There is no linking commentary on the content so changes are often quite abrupt, particularly in the earlier parts of the show, as we roll along from one number to the next, with an outstanding series of chorus numbers and songs by the stars, under the accomplished conductor Alfonso Casado Trigo. Matthew Bourne’s direction comes into its own when moody three-tier sets by Matt Kinley are rolled in from the wings and double-up for extracts from Sweeney Todd and West Side Story. We are transported from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood to Mrs Lovett’s Pie Shop where Lea Salonga is joined by Jeremy Secomb to rustle up the infamous pies with comic gusto before she goes on to a heartrending performance of Somewhere on the streets of New York. Warren Letton’s lighting enhances every performance, while George Reeve has particularly splendid moments with projections that create the setting for Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George; his transformation of the associated painting from a lone sketchy figure to a canvas in shades of grey that meld into full colour being outstanding.
Among the big names Bernadette Peters, surprisingly making her debut in the West End at the age of 75, is perhaps amongst the most anticipated. Joined by a demonically-costumed and bare-chested Bradley Jaden, who menacingly greets her in Hello, Little Girl she gives an earthy and haunting rendition of I Know Things Now, in stunningly vivid red cloak; a double-bill of costume success that matches the rest of the show courtesy of Jill Parker. The much-anticipated renditions by Peters of the moving Send In The Clowns and Losing My Mind, however, whilst effectively melancholy, fell disappointingly short of the mark in terms of vocal performance.
In contrast, Bonnie Langford gives an exuberantly amusing dimension to I’m Still Here and shocks with a gymnastic splits. Jac Yarrow similarly drains every ounce of humour from On the Steps Of The Palace as does Joanna Riding in I’m Not Getting Married Today. Meanwhile, the innocently surprised look on the face of Janie Dee as she delivers a perfectly enunciated tongue-twister in The Boy From makes it all the more amusing. Jason Pennycooke also brilliantly gets his tongue round the fast-paced Buddy’s Blues in modern music-hall comedic style.
It’s a glittering show packed with life, energy and outstanding talent that’s not afraid to bring the level down at times to reflect the range of Sondheim’s writing and which confirms his status as one of the greatest in his field. He once observed of his career, “I certainly wanted my name in lights”. He achieved that, and now no longer with us his name still shines brightly and in our hearts he will always sing, “I’m Still Here.”