Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"Sondheim! the Birthday Concert"

Following in the long, long, very long tributes to Broadway God Stephen Sondheim comes "Sondheim! the Birthday Concert". On March 11, 1973 RCA Victor did the unthinkable and recorded a tribute to the shows of Stephen Sondheim called "Sondheim A Musical Tribute." They took the most of the original performers from all the shows that he had done up to that point (which was "A Little Night") and included an unproduced" one "Saturday Night" and brought on stage most of the original performers. It was a three hour evening condensed on two LP's with some numbers committed (though they have appeared in various collections.) Since then we have gotten "A Stephen Sondheim Evening" (which is performed as "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow",) "Marry Me a Little" (I'm including this because these are all the cut songs from various productions), "Sondheim at "Carnegie Hall," Putting it Together version 1 and 2, Sondheim a Celebration, East West Players Sing Sondheim, Movin On, Simply Sondheim, Simply Sondheim Gay Mens Chorus, Songs of Sondheim - Side by Side, and most recently Sondheim on Sondheim. So it's safe to say that these songs have been done in thousands of different ways some work some don't. The Birthday Concert works in parts and in other parts doesn't but overall was wonderful and with songs like these and performers performing them these ways there should be even more.

The show starts with David Hyde Pierce in the matter of a few seconds wipes away memories of Bill Irwin in the last PBS tribute. Him and longtime Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignami do many funny bits though the night using the overture to "Sweeney Todd" and David Hyde Pierce comes across as likable even with a few zingers.

The show opens with "America" featuring Tony Award Winner Karen Olivo from the current Broadway revival of "West Side Story." I'm not a big fan of dance numbers during these tribute concerts because if your celebrating the songs of the composer how about something like "One Hand One Heart" otherwise it look messy though I think Karen Olivo proves why she won the Tony and shows she has a future as music video extra for a Prince video.

We then get Alexander Gemignani singing a lovely though a little on the light side version of "Somethins Coming." I as a bit surprised that they didn't have Matt Cavenaugh who played the role o Tony in the recent revival but I think since he was fired and panned that might have been a good idea.

Broadway's couple Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley performing "We're Gonna Be All Right" from "Do I Hear a Waltz?" They did a good job and have great chemistry I just think that this is a number that needs staging, having them just sit there singing a song with wonderful lyrics makes it into nothng but a cabaret performance.

Victoria Clark came out in a gorgeous blue dress and did a little know song from the Judy Holliday musical "Hot Spot" called "Don't Laugh." I think this is a great number with wonderful lyrics that hit with humor but Victoria Clark was one of the worst people picked for this. She's not known for her leading lady musicl comedy gifts and wish someone like Faith Prince, Carolee Carmello, or Sally Mayes would have been picked as I think they would have been able to wring all the humor from this number and turn it into a showstopper.

Nathan Gunn sang a gorgeous yet wooden "Johanna" from "Sweeney Todd". As much as I love this song I question why it has to be done in just about very Sondheim tribute show. The only time that there was any originality to this song was when Bernadette Peters sang it for her Sondheim Etc. concert.

After that we got a medley of "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow"/"Love Will See Us Though" with newer Broadway performers Matt Cavenugh, Jenn Colella (Great dress but really couldn't she cover up the arm tattoo), Laura Osnes, and Bobby Steggert. I enjoyed this though more because it's left off of tribute shows then the actual production.

Broadway Goddess Audra McDonald who looks stunning came out as Sally Durant to sing "Too Many Tomorrows" with Nathan Gunn proving his wooden performance of "Johanna" just wasn't an off night. I don't think it would have mattered though if he gave the acting performance of his career. You simply could not take your eyes off of Audra McDonald ho captured even the slightest detail of what the character is feeling during the song.

Next came the original cast performances piece a part I originally thought would be dull as some of these have been preserved for television but showed that after years new layers could be discovered in their performances.

It started with John McMcMartin the only remaining lead from "Follies" performing "The Road You Didn't Take" and this had to have been a highlight of the show. The voice is' what it used to be but that's a tiny quibble at this point you get that he has lived a song like this and understands everything about it. So you feel like your watching a human being reflecting on the do's and don't of their lives instead of an actor.

Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien got a huge laugh when she started the song with the lyric "You've Changed" as the original production of "Into the Woods" opened in 1987. It was also the first Sondheim I ever saw at Music on Stage in Palatine. Another performance that I thought missed something due to them just sitting there but this time it struck me they had a different chemistry then Mazzie and Danieley had so it wasn't as bad. I did notice that Chip Zien's voice has gotten stronger with age but Joanna Gleason after what looked like years of face work has gotten weaker.

As a surprise and a little bit of a cheat to their "Original Casts" category they had Jim Walton playing the piano and singing "Growing Up." He replaced another actor in previews but did open the show. It was nice and as for a historical factor was wonderful but putting him behind the piano limits the performance.

Mandy Patinkin decided to under dress for the occasion by wearing sweater and sang "Day Off/Finishing the Hat" still to me one of the best songs Sondheim has written but I noticed that Mandy is really reaching for some of those notes now.

He was followed by Broadway Goddess Bernadette Peters looking even more like a goddess in a gold dress recreating the magic of 1983's "Sunday in the Park with George" with their scene that leads into "Move On" another one of the greatest songs Sondheim has ever written. What I noticed is that Peters did a lof the same things she did from the original production but brought something fresh and deeper to the performance which was stunning.

For the close of Act One Paul Gemignani finally got to play the overture to "Sweeney Todd" and Broadway Goddess Number 3 Patti LuPone came out with both her Sweeney's George Hearn (from the N.Y. Philharmonic and concert production) and Michael Cerveris got to trade jokes before the two Sweeney's sang "My Friends." LuPone came back out in a hideous pantsuit and what a shame they couldn't all be in the same production which led into "A Little Priest" and a lot of mugging. I thought this was a great concept and showed how much fun the three actors were having doing this particular arrangement and it was new to tribute concerts.

Act Two opened with the theme from the film Reds that Sondheim and my feelings towards dance at these particular events stood also I would have liked to have heard it song as "Goodbye for Now" which was the song that it became with either Judy Kuhn or Liz Callaway (who has recorded it before.)

Next came the stunning Laura Benanti came out and sang "So Many People" from "Saturday Night." Laura Benanti is a developing Broadway Goddess who can sing a simple song put so much emotion into it on a vast concert stage and just make it work. Better known Broadway stars like Sutton Foster who sells everything so hard must hate her.

David Hyde Pierce warbled out a decent "Beautiful Girls" that brought the nights big highlight. Six Broadway Divas all dressed in red Diane Von Furstenberg dresses to each sit in a semi circle and watch the other bring fire and magic and boy did some of them.

Patti LuPone started with the immortal words "I'd Like to Propose a Toast" and then launched into a no holds barred Powerful "Ladies Who Lunch" from "Company." She even delivered the line does anyone still where a hat to a hat wearing Elaine Stritch which was only fitting since Elaine created the song. The thing I like about LuPone now is that she finally gets that she's a Broadway Diva. So her performances have more fire and danger in them.

After that Marin Mazzie offered up an acceptable "Losing My Mind" from "Follies" it was well sung and on second viewing I noticed Marin was doing everything with her eyes but I thought that it was an obvious choice of song to sing and something like "Happiness" from "Passion" would have been better.

Audra McDonald stood up and morphed from a 30's woman to a young girl lamenting about her mother's profession in "The Glamorous Life" from the film version of "A Little Night Music." I've seen Audra perform this on numerous occasions and it never fails to be exciting. She sings the life out of this song and imbues it with so much passion and glorious color to her voice while never forgetting that it's though the point of few of a young girl. However I would have like to have heard Audra sing "There Won't Be Trumpets" or something else.

While still sitting as the orchestra played the familiar strings to "Could I Leave You" from "Follies" Donna Murphy performed one of the most fully realized rendition of this song. Her leave you would have left no survivors at the end of the song.

After that Bernadette Peters who is timeless sang her standard "Not a Day Goes By" from "Merrily We Roll Along" The first time I watched this I was disappointed as I don't think any performance of this number could top her "Sondheim at "Carnegie Hall" performance which was utter perfection. After watching it the second time I noticed she had a more personalized approach to the song and knowing the loss of her husband left me devastated by this performance.

To top off the six divas Elaine Stritch stood up and delivered a vibrant, defiant, "I'm Still Here" the third song from "Follies." Elaine delivered the song much the same way she sang "Broadway Baby" from the Follies concert at Avery Fisher Hall however it works better here then it did there. These are one of the songs delivered by someone who has lived this song and earned the right to sing it.

At the end of the concert brought out everyone who was currently in a Broadway show to finish this night off with "Sunday" from "Sunday in the Park with George." Every time this is played at the end of one of these tribute concerts I get emotional but I also wish they could come up with something else.

Everyone came out to sing Happy Birthday to Sondheim who kept his words very simple quoting Alice Roosevelt's "First Your Young, Then Your Middle Age, Then Your Wonderful."

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