Sondheim on Sondheim, Royal Festival Hall | Review

Saturday 17 March 2018

Sondheim on Sondheim 
Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed on Thursday 15th March 2018 by Olivia Mitchell 

Stephen Sondheim is one of the most loved musical theatre composers ever but because so much of his music is deeply rooted into it's source shows, his songs are rarely performed in a revue style as it tends to make little sense. However, people often try to make it work which is how Sondheim on Sondheim, conceived by James Lapine, was born. Instead of just being a series of songs, it includes footage and commentary from Stephen himself.

There is a mixture of biographical footage as well as more musically descriptive passages which meld into the live performances. Particularly effective moments were when Sondheim describes the various opening numbers for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum before they're sung live, and when he explains the musical complexities of Sweeney Todd as Julian Ovenden gives a rousing rendition of Epiphany.

The cast of this concert were sublime, with some outstanding ensemble moments including the jazzy, extra-swung version of West Side Story's Something's Coming. Claire Moore and Liz Callaway are both spectacular, with their touching mash up of Losing My Mind and Not a Day Goes By being a stand out of the night as well as their solo performances of Send in the Clowns and Buddy's Eyes. Julian Ovenden showed off his powerful voice in a number of songs, especially the glorious Finishing the Hat from Sunday in the Park with George

I felt that Rebecca Trehearn and Tyrone Huntley were underused in the concert. However, Rebecca's rendition of I Read and Tyrone's, Being Alive were absolutely wonderful. Both performers are firm favourites of mine and it was joyous to hear them backed by a full, flowing orchestra, even if it was only for a brief period. Damian Humbley replaced Ben Forster and provided some fantastic vocal moments, namely during Franklin Shepard, Inc.

Aside from the vocal performances, the BBC  Concert Orchestra were splendid, however at times, especially in the first act, the balance between them and the performers just didn't work and led to very uneven sound. At points it seemed like the microphones were not working at all whilst at others it sounded over amplified. 

Overall this was a beautifully moving concert with some light hearted moments as well as some more moving flashes such as when Sondheim describes his relationship with Oscar Hammerstein and talks candidly about receiving a letter from his mother saying she wished she never birthed him. I left the Royal Festival Hall in awe of the performers, in love with Sondheim's music and connected to him as a person. Of course we just saw him on screen but in his candid moments he came across as a genuinely kind person who adores music- something which we can all relate to.

Sondheim on Sondheim will be broadcast on Tuesday 20 March, 7.30pm on BBC Radio 3

photo credit: Mark Allan