by: Susan Hasho
Chip Zien came onto the 54 Below stage on December 11th loaded for bear. Surrounded by a full stage of musicians, he zipped to the microphone and aimed right for his strong suit—Sondheim. He said that “Steve” said he could sing whichever of his songs he wanted as long as he did it “as written.” And Zien then sang a medley of Sondheim songs arranged with swing and sass and more than a little tongue in cheek. For instance, the song The Best Pies in London was performed way up tempo and as though it was written for a car salesman.
His show was upbeat and his narrative funny and spontaneous. He talked a lot about his father and his father’s love of Sinatra and, indeed, the evening had a strong underpinning of elegant nightclub-like musical arrangements created by his musical director Jeff Klitz. Zein reveals his own love of nightclubs as a kid and an expectation of a dual career as a lawyer / nightclub headliner. In short, he felt he could do it all and all with a sort of “bi-polar” optimism. His career has been sidetracked, however, into one of musical theatre excellence, so it seems this foray into the 54 Below cabaret scene is an attempt to circle back and pick up some dreams.
He has created a musically expert and fun evening and his voice is gorgeous and easy; but the highlights for me were the more serious moments representing his two long-term musical relationships with the composers Stephen Sondheim and William Finn. He performed Finn’s How Marvin Eats and Survive the Night with the touching depth of full understanding. He performed Sondheim’s Franklin Shepard, Inc from the musical Merrily We Roll Along with such truthful ferocity, that he managed to perfectly communicate the painful dichotomy of satisfaction and sell out contained in theatrical success. And then–he owns the song No More from Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods as far as I’m concerned. It’s his role as the baker in that show that brought full attention to his enormous talent, and his interpretation of it is the perfect synthesis of artist channeling the soul of a song, and a composer.
Chip Zien’s show was swinging and fun. But don’t let that fool you—there’s enormous soul at the core. He packs a fabulous punch. 54Below.com