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Sondheim on Sondheim review at Royal Festival Hall, London – ‘exquisite performances’

Tyrone Huntley in Sondheim on Sondheim at Royal Festival Hall, London. Photo: Mark Allan
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The idea of a Sondheim revue is both a huge temptation and a folly. As magnificent as so many of his songs are, they’re always very deeply woven into the shows they come from and divorcing them of that context is to do them a disservice in many ways.

Still, it hasn’t stopped people trying. There’s been Putting it Together, Side by Side by Sondheim, Opening Doors, Marry Me a Little. And now Sondheim on Sondheim. First performed in 2010 in New York, the show was conceived by James Lapine with whom Sondheim wrote Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George and Passion. Its USP is that it features original filmed footage of the man himself providing commentary between songs.

But it’s never clear what this show wants to be. Some footage is biographical, some describes process, some the history of particular songs or shows. The setlist is odd too: four consecutive songs from Passion, nothing from A Little Night Music (besides a few bars).

That said, the cast is fantastic, from Rebecca Trehearn’s seemingly effortless clarity to Julian Ovenden’s smooth tenor. Damian Humbley replaces Ben Forster fairly late in the day, and it’s a privilege to see him reprise Franklin Shepherd Inc from Merrily We Roll Along.

Aside from a roof-raising rendition of Being Alive from Company, the superb Tyrone Huntley is underused. And some of the diction gets lost in treble-heavy, over-amplified sound that comes across as very artificial alongside the lush BBC Concert Orchestra.

The strongest moments are those that tie footage and performance together, as when Sondheim describes two abortive opening numbers for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which are then sung. Equally, the brief moments where he describes his relationship with Oscar Hammerstein are very moving.

The material is exquisite, and expertly performed. It’s just a shame the show as a whole doesn’t really hang together.

Sondheim on Sondheim will be broadcast on March 21 on BBC Radio 3 

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Exquisite performances don’t quite salvage a wonky Sondheim revue that lacks purpose