A wonderful tribute to Stephen Sondheim.

By: Jun. 24, 2022
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Review: MOMENTS IN THE WOODS: SONGS AND STORIES OF SONDHEIM – ADELAIDE CABARET FESTIVAL 2022 at Her Majesty's Theatre Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 23rd June 2022.

The world of musical theatre lost one of its greatest talents, with the death of Stephen Sondheim on the 26th of November last year. In a career of over six decades he went from lyricist for Gypsy and West Side Story, and contributor to Candide, to a creating a long string of musicals for which he wrote both lyrics and music, beginning with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Moments in the Woods: Songs and Stories of Sondheim, which takes its title from a song in his musical, Into the Woods, looks back over his life and work.

Such a production must have presented enormous difficulties, from deciding which of his songs to leave out and, having decided on those that absolutely must be included, reducing it from a work longer than Wagner's Ring Cycle to only a couple of hours. Nobody complained when it ran over time. Given half a chance, we'd still be there demanding more.

Philip Quast, Geraldine Turner, Queenie van de Zandt,
Josie Lane, and Mitchell Butel, who was also the director, drew on their enormous collective experiences performing roles in Sondheim's musicals, and their memories of their meetings and correspondences with him, to present a sensational tribute to his lifetime of achievement. Listing their awards and telling of their careers would take pages. Enough to say that these five amazing performers were a perfect choice for this production.

Daryl Wallis was the Musical Director for this performance, which features new arrangements of the many songs for the small group of musicians, but, illness struck, and Josh van Konkelenberg stepped in with only a few days to prepare, and learn the complex piano parts. He led a group of first-class musicians: Alana Dawes, double bass and bass guitar, John McDermott, drums and percussion, and Vashti Tyrell and Christina Guala, between them playing an array of reeds and woodwinds of varied size and timbre, from flute to bass clarinet.

Mounting a performance of Sondheim's music is almost a solid gold guarantee of success, and engaging five such knowledgeable and experienced performers of his work multiplies that. It was no surprise, then, that Her Majesty's Theatre had very few empty seats. It was also no surprise to see a good many of
Adelaide's musical theatre community turning up.

The evening opened, appropriately, with Old Friends, from Merrily We Roll Along, each singing a few lines, and then joining in harmony. This, like every other number during the evening, was followed by extended and enthusiastic applause.

This led to a series of solos exploring a wide range of songs from his best-known musicals, as we went, first, Into the Woods, with Josie Lane singing Little Red Riding Hood's somewhat tongue in cheek, I Know Things Now, and Queenie van de Zandt the presenting the Witch's big number, The Last Midnight. They set a very high standard that was maintained for the rest of the evening.

It would hardly have been a complete performance without Send in the Clowns, from A Little Night Music, and the fabulous Geraldine Turner gave a definitive rendition.

Sunday in the Park with George was well represented, with Josie Lane getting right into character and singing Dot's titular number, with Philip Quast adding George's spoken demands, then he followed that by singing Finishing the Hat. They made these very tricky numbers sound easy.

Mitchell Butel finally got his turn. The performers not only sang songs from roles that they had played, but also roles that they wished that they had played. Having made us laugh over his claim to have once played Shark number 27, he promoted himself to Tony to sing a rousing version of Something's Coming, from West Side Story.

Queenie van de Zandt turned to Follies, and Who's That Woman, while Geraldine Turner sang I'm Still Here, also from that show, giving two supremely powerful performances.

In a little bit of audience participation, a couple of members of the audience, who claimed to be big fans of Sondheim, were selected and tasked with identifying the songs and the shows from which they came, in a medley sung by the whole group. The first to miss one, lost. The winner was given a fine collection of prizes. It pays to sit in the front row.

The second half brought forth more familiar songs, but included a couple of lesser know shows, Evening Primrose, and The Frogs. I could not help but wonder how many in the audience had seen Evening Primrose, a one-hour-long piece written for the American ABC's Stage 67 series. The colour original has been lost, but a black and white version still exists, and it has since been staged. It's on YouTube. The song, Take Me to the World, takes on a greater poignancy if one knows the full context, and Josie Lane and Queenie van de Zandt gave a sensitive rendition. The Frogs, loosely adapted from the play by Aristophanes, included the song Fear No More, which Philip Quast gave a unique rendition in his rich baritone.

Before getting to those, however, each performer entered the stage to perform another stunning solo, with
Josie Lane opening the second half with There Won't Be Trumpets, from Anyone Can Whistle. Queenie van de Zandt followed with Not a Day Goes By, from Merrily We Roll Along, and Mitchell Butel was next, with a personal favourite that my long-suffering singing teacher must have heard me sing more times than she probably wanted, Toby's naïve ballad, Not While I'm Around, from Sweeney Todd. The evening just got better and better.

Comedy was on the agenda as Mitchell Butel became Hysterium and Phillip Quast, who had played once Miles Gloriosus, became Pseudolus, having great fun with Lovely, from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Quast then went on to sing The Road You Didn't Take, from Follies, a reflection on all of the other possibilities that might have been taken in life. This is something with which we can all relate.

Geraldine Turner gave a great version of The Ladies Who Lunch, from Company, the entire company joined forces for Being Alive, also from Company and, finally, the evening closed with a big finish, the ensemble singing Sunday, from Sunday in the Park with George.

A standing ovation, in
Adelaide, is hard to come by, but not on this occasion, the audience getting to its feet and calling the performers back for another bow. That standing ovation was very well-deserved.

This performance was for one night only, but it is well-worth repeating at some later date, and should really be toured to other states. It would be a shame for them to be deprived of such a wonderful evening. Making a video of the production would, also, have been a worthwhile endeavour. Bravo!