Maria Friedman: Re-arranged at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Maria Friedman has that gift which is only afforded to great singers in that she inspires emotion and empathy in line with whatever 'story' the protagonist of the song she is singing is conveying.

In other words, as a singer, and actress, she takes on the point of view the song has been written from when she is singing, and performs that role convincingly and emotively. As most of the songs Ms. Friedman performs in this outing stem from musicals, she has plenty of characters whose viewpoint she can sing from: a 'demon barber' from Fleet Street, Maria from West Side Story, a 'Broadway Baby' and, in a duo of numbers which inspired enthusiastic applause – that of Dot from Sunday in the Park with George, the role she originated opposite Philip Quast in the 1990 British premiere of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize winning (for Drama) Sondheim show at the National Theatre.

Favourite songs will naturally generate a certain amount of enjoyment when sung with conviction by nearly any competent singer. However, when the singer is as accomplished as Ms. Friedman and is accompanied by an eleven piece band which sounds more like a small orchestra, the effects are very pleasing indeed. Fans of the singer will know that she has, in recent years, been undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and on the night I was at the show many of her more ardent fans seemed very happy to be there, in her company and vice versa.

Red velvet remnants of La Cage Aux Folles dressed the walls of the Menier, adding welcome cosiness on a cold, rainy Friday night. Circular tables down front lent a café feel, as the audience in the nearly full house settled back in their seats. Maria Friedman is a well known and well loved West End star and her appearance at an intimate venue like the Menier offered a welcome change for both she, and her fans, most of whom have, no doubt, been more accustomed to seeing her perform in musicals in huge venues.

The band, eleven musicians in all, between them play 50 instruments, and several band-members could be seen shifting between instruments during the show. The material performed has no 'theme' as Friedman explained, but songs were chosen, simply because they are ones she likes and enjoys singing. Naturally, as she has starred in two (or three) Sondheim musicals, and is a renowned interpreter of his material, many of the key numbers in the show were his compositions, though others included favourites songs by Irving Berlin, Kate Bush, Jerry Herman and Jacques Brel, the last of which were performed with a heightened sense of the drama and pathos they so typically embody. 'Dido's Lament' by Purcell was a softly nuanced and unexpectedly ancient, but nonetheless beautiful selection.

More up-beat numbers were also a mixed bag: Randy Newman, Suzanne Vega and Julie Styne, (lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green), Sondheim's 'The Worst Pies in London,' with the help of a good-natured fellow recruited from the audience, as well as a translated version of 'Le Trombone' by Michel Legrand which provided a lively backdrop for Friedman's introductions of her 'trombone-less' band. 'I Want to Sleep With You Now.' (Music – Charles Strouse, Lyrics – Lee Adams), also brought a rather reluctant, but nonetheless amiable male 'volunteer' to Friedman's side, who was also enlisted to 'accompany' her and the band on a plastic recorder.

Some lovely, low-key moments occur during Friedman's moving interpretations of longing filled Sondheim ballads such as 'In Buddy's Eyes', 'Marry Me a Little' and Bernstein's 'There's a Place for Us,' among many others. Personal favourites included wistful renderings of Irving Berlin's 'I Got Lost in His Arms,' and the final numbers, both by Sondheim: 'Broadway Baby' and 'Goodbye for Now.' It has to be said that all round excellence in terms of musical arrangements and performance of the songs by the band, cum orchestra are both major factors in the successful realisation of Ms. Friedman's vision.

Intermittent comments about her children, two boys, aged five and thirteen and affectionate jibes with the band's two arrangers, Chris Walker and Michael Haslam seemed to bring the singer back down to earth between songs and served to add levity amidst a sea of numbers with largely, heart-breaking lyrics, though one would hesitate to label songs extracted from Sondheim's musicals as 'torch songs.' In terms of their narrative content and strong reliance upon the acting skills of their purveyors, they are more like extracts from contemporary operas, than traditional torch songs. In the hands of a lesser singer, those under-exposed to Sondheim's work could hone in on the undeniable similarities between their lines, in a literal, as well as a musical sense. However, any momentary uneasiness which ensues may merely be due to the similarity of content and style of some of Ms. Friedman's selections, which is perhaps, more due to a singer's preference, rather than that of untrained listeners. Having said all of that, it is oddly refreshing to hear discordance layered within the context of musical theatre songs, mirroring the insecurity under-pinning their subject matter, expressed without a need for over verboseness.

Friedman's first solo show By Special Arrangement, first staged in 1995 in London's Donmar Warehouse, won her an Olivier Award for Best Entertainment; two subsequent Oliviers have been won for her roles in Sondheim's Passion (1997) and Ragtime (2004). Her most recent London appearance was opposite opera star Bryn Terfel in Sweeney Todd for the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall last year.

While it's true that Ms. Friedman has been no stranger to West End accolades in the past, tonight's performance demonstrated that awards aren't nearly as important in the scheme of things as a warm, appreciative round of applause in the here and now.

More about Maria Friedman at Menier Chocolate Factory

• Wednesday 19 March 2008 to Sunday 4 May 2008 at Menier Chocolate Factory

See listing for Maria Friedman in our What's on guide...

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