THEATRE: Eyeing up the talent

How many of you out there know that Stephen Sondheim wrote a Violin Sonata? To both of you I say, have you heard it? Well you can on Sunday 17 May at the Barbican, when it receives its European premiere in a Sondheim Gala Evening in aid of Cancer Research.

All those who see fit to call themselves musical theatre aficionados (or, to call a spade a spade: queens) will have attended one of these glittery evenings. The great and the good put on their best frocks and fly in to perform their party pieces, but this is different. So different in fact that tickets for the evening went so fast that a second performance had to be added in the afternoon. So why the surge for this less-than- inexpensive event?

Unlike your run-of-the-mill gala which makes do with two pianos, this runs to the City of London Philharmonic and a 100-strong chorus. We're talking big. The concert features four other European premieres of Sondheim orchestral works, including suites from the scores for the film Stavisky and the groundbreaking but rarely performed Pacific Overtures, the latter orchestrated by the great William David Brohn. Then there's the line-up. In addition to Dames Cleo Laine and Edna Everage, there are talents as large as Maria Friedman, Jonathan Pryce... and Elaine Stritch (above right).

This living legend recently pitched up to Barbara Cook's 70th birthday concert. Stritch didn't so much play as slay the entire Royal Albert Hall, as those of us lucky enough to catch her first sung performance in this country in more than two decades will testify. The years fell away as she stood in the spotlight, her legs scissoring the stage, working a lifetime's sardonic humour and terrified hope into the hoofer's dreamsong "Broadway Baby". At the risk of understatement, she drove the audience into a frenzy. For her rare appearance alone, you should cancel all other engagements and book this instant.

There are also two other towering talents whose presence commands attendance. Now, I know that regular readers of this column have me down as one of your urbane, devil-may-care, distingue types with nary a care in the world, a dashing (if younger) double for, say, George Sanders in All About Eve, but I have a confession to make. About a year ago, my worldly savoir-faire was ruffled during a distinctly uncharacteristic postmodern moment.

There I was on a Saturday afternoon relieving a severe inflammation of the spending gland, indulging in a spot of shopping in Harvey Nicks, when I received a visitation. There, in front of my very eyes, poking in and out among the home furnishings were the twin doyennes of musical comedy, Millicent Martin and Julia McKenzie, the other stars of next Sunday's show.

After shaking myself to prove that this was not some quasi-religious fantasy, I subtly affected a preternatural fascination with a nearby cushion cover at which point, Millicent pointed to a charmingly wrought lampstand and enquired of her friend, "Do you think I should get this?" Quick as a flash, design guru Julia leapt in. "Well," she confided, "it would go very well with your flagstone flooring." At which point, it happened. I had an out-of-body experience. No longer was I going about my day-to-day existence: I was in the middle of a Victoria Wood sketch.

Sondheim Gala, Barbican Theatre, EC2 (0171-638 8891) 17 May at 4pm

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