by Brian Scott Lipton
There can be little dispute, if any, that Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are the true twin titans of musical theater – the former, a composer equally suited to jazz, Broadway and classical music; the latter, a genius with a gift for a memorable (and yes even hummable) melodies and often labyrinthine lyrics that leave you dazzled and dazed. Their one collaboration, “West Side Story” remains, 60 years after its debut, a true landmark show that forever changed the Great White Way.
What more do they need? An equally great interpreter, of course, and there may be none better than the English actress-singer Maria Friedman. Luckily for us, she is giving a master class in cabaret in her absolutely must-see show (as in drop whatever plans you have) simply entitled “Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim and Bernstein” at Feinstein’s/54 Below.
Back in New York for the first time in many years, Friedman’s singular gifts have only ripened with age. Whether the song is comic (“Getting Married Today”), romantic (“A Little Bit in Love”), or dramatic (Bernstein’s little-known protest song, “So Pretty”), she gets straight to its center and delivers it with every ounce of the love and attention it deserves.
While she isn’t possessed of a conventionally pretty voice, it is versatile, scaling high notes and deep ones — allowing her to sound both fragile and brassy in the same song, which works especially well for Bernstein’s “One Hundred Ways to Lose a Man” or Sondheim’s “Broadway Baby” (both of which are highlights of the evening). And she’s anything but a diva; indeed, her stories – many of which are at her own expense – are so wonderful that she could probably do a stand-up act and succeed almost as well.
Fortunately, though, there are these great songs, about 20 of them (some set into medleys), beautifully chosen and stunningly arranged by her talented pianist Jason Carr. Her opening section (Friedman likens her act to a three-act play) focuses on life in the big city, and features superb versions of Bernstein’s mournful “Lonely Town” and Sondheim’s tongue-twisting “Another Hundred People.” Next up is an examination of the many stages of love, which includes a delicious trio of Bernstein’s “A Little Bit in Love,” Sondheim’s “In Buddy Eyes” and the pair’s “I Have a Love.”
And then there’s the show’s last third, in which Freidman offers seemingly definitive versions of some of the most extraordinary songs ever: Sondheim’s stirring “Children Will Listen” becomes the cautionary tale he always intended; his magnificent “Losing My Mind” is, in Friedman’s hands, a nervous breakdown set to music; the peerless “Send in the Clowns” is the epitome of bittersweet tragicomedy; and the pair’s “Somewhere” (which I often find hopelessly naïve) is turned into a true anthem of hope and prayer for troubled times.
While that song appears to end the show, if it did, we’d miss a hilarious take on “Gee Officer Krupke” (from “West Side Story’), complete with costume changes and the chance for an audience singalong, and a movingly delicate “Some Other Time” (from “On the Town”), which never fails to bring a tear to my eye.
One can only hope that Friedman will keep her musical promise, and we’ll “catch up” with her again not just “some other time,” but sometime very soon!
Photos: Maryann Lopinto
“Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim and Bernstein” continues at 7pm on September 22nd and 23rd at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 West 54th Street). Visit www.54below.com for tickets.