Review: Maria Friedman Re-arranged

By John Nathan, April 4, 2008

Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1

The tiny Chocolate Factory is used to squeezing a quart into a pint. But an 11-piece band who between them play over 40 instruments in a venue of just 180 seats is almost enough to make you reach for the Guinness Book of Records. What makes this evening much more cosy than cramped is the down-to-earth diva Maria Friedman, who makes her audience feel like the chosen people. Friedman is taking a possibly permanent break from the kind of big production musicals — Chicago, The Witches of Eastwick among others — in which she made her name.

In a sense, though, this warm-hearted cabaret concert is a return to Friedman’s roots and echoes the 1995 Donmar show that won her the first of three Olivier Awards. As then, this gig is as much about the arrangements as the songs.

“Anyone who knows anything about me knows how important Stephen Sondheim is to me,” she says. No other composer has influenced Friedman as much as Sondheim, and he features prominently here. But there is also something for fans of Jacques Brel, Adam Guettel, Leonard Bernstein, even Randy Newman.

But Friedman is on home ground when delivering the melodic and lyrical nuances of Sondheim. Her Sunday In the Park With Dot is a performance reprieved from the National Theatre production. As Mrs Lovett, from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Friedman is all Cockney and comic timing with The Worst Pies in London.

And when her volunteer from the audience tried to eat one of the pie props, Friedman, without diverting from tune or rhythm, held a handkerchief under his chin to spit into. Somehow she manages to be maternal and sexy.

But the markers for the evening’s eclectic quality are drawn not from musical theatre but the pop charts. A gorgeous version of Kate Bush’s The Man With the Child in His Eyes is reinvention by arranger Caroline Humphris. That is followed by Friedman’s hypnotic a cappella version of Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner.

“I don’t do themes, I just want to find pockets of emotion,” says Friedman in the evening’s only misleading moment. For they are not so much pockets as fathom-deep wells. (Tel: 020 7907 7060)

Last updated: 1:08pm, June 4 2008