This spring promised to be a high-profile time for Maria Friedman, with Broadway at her feet and the likelihood of a Tony nomination for her Rialto debut in “The Woman in White.” Though the jury is still out on the Tony nom (to be announced May 16), things didn’t work out exactly as planned. Nevertheless, the Brit musical comedy star has logged a strange and eventful New York season. She sings Stephen Sondheim as well as (better than?) anybody else, making Friedman’s show at the Cafe Carlyle grand cabaret.
A three-time Olivier Award winner who has played leads in “Passion,” “Ragtime” and “Chicago,” the 46-year-old Friedman came to Broadway to re-create the role she originated in the West End in the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Trevor Nunn import “Woman in White.” Breast cancer was diagnosed for Friedman during previews and the news duly splattered across the front page. Unlike the usual cliche where the understudy comes to the rescue, Friedman dug in almost ferociously, coming through treatment and returning in time for the November opening.
Her perf in the central role was superb; under the circumstances, it was superhuman. But it was not enough to save the clumsy show, which closed in February.
Now here she is, back at the Carlyle for her third visit in four springs, with Sondheim providing material in every way more rewarding than Lloyd Webber’s tuner.
Many of these songs Friedman has sung before, including chunks from “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Passion,” and a knockout “Broadway Baby” (reprised from both her earlier Carlyle stints).
The songbook runs from “I Must Be Dreaming,” from the 19-year-old Sondheim’s 1949 college musical “All That Glitters,” to “Isn’t He Something?” from “Bounce” (2003). Friedman sings the notes perfectly, pronounces the words precisely, interprets the lyrics clearly and acts the subtext, a combination that makes her a composer’s best friend. Especially this composer.
Friedman garbled some of the patter at the opening perf and got lost in a couple of the songs, insisting on going back and doing them right. She gave us the best and clearest rendition possible of “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” but when she launched into double-time she ran aground on all those juicy Jessies and dressy Lucys. (“Oh, my poor head!” she moaned.) Typically, the fluffed moments were at least as charming as the rest of the set.
The act was supervised by Sondheim archivist Peter E. Jones, no doubt with personal attention from the composer (who is godfather to Friedman’s eldest child). Sondheim regular Nicholas Archer finds every nuance at the piano, while Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf does an expressive job on the cello.
“Marry Me a Little,” a powerful song cut from the Boston tryout of “Company,” contains the phrase, “passionate as hell, but always in control.” As delivered by Friedman at the Carlyle, it leaps out at us as never before, at once describing both the singer and the songwriter.