By Brian Scott Lipton . . .
Few shows of any sort have ever lived up to their billing as accurately – or as thrillingly – as Isn’t It Bliss? Sondheim on Love – which proved to be a spectacular finale to the 50th season of the 92NY’s beloved “Lyrics & Lyricists” series. Conceived, directed and hosted by the ever-endearing Ted Sperling – who delighted audiences with his many personal and professional anecdotes about Sondheim — this brilliantly performed revue left me with a perpetual smile on my face.
More importantly, it gave me an even greater appreciation for Sondheim’s varied oeuvre of songs about the world’s greatest emotion. As we all know, Sondheim was not a June/Moon guy (though his virtually unknown song, “I Wouldn’t Change a Thing,” contains that rhyme), and the nearly two dozen tunes performed here were a potent reminder that his lyrics are often as complex as love itself in its many forms.
Moreover, as Sperling pointed out, each Sondheim show has its own musical style, from jaunty to sophisticated to romantic, and each one was on full display thanks in large part to the remarkable seven-member band, who easily handled Joshua Clayton’s stunning all-new arrangements.
Still, the show would not have worked as wonderfully without the perfectly chosen four-person cast of Ben Davis, Jordan Donica, Solea Pfeiffer and Scarlett Strallen. Each of them is a gorgeous-voiced singer and consummate actor who can both vocally articulate the wit and heart of this priceless material and travel effortlessly from character to character.
Indeed, watching this revue all I could do is imagine revival after revival. In Act One alone, we were treated to Davis as the insincere bachelor Bobby and Strallen as the naïve flight attendant Amy discussing “Barcelona” in Company; Donica and Strallen as the lovestruck Giorgio and Clara singing about their new-found “Happiness” in Passion; Pfeiffer and Donica as the hopeful young lovers plotting their escape in “Take Me to the World” from Evening Primrose; and, best of all, a delicious Strallen as the over-enthusiastic Mrs. Lovett opposite Davis’ distracted Sweeney Todd during a gloriously goofy “By the Sea.”
Brilliant scene partners, the performers also shone brightly with their solos: Davis transformed into a magnificently jealous but cocky Carl-Magnus while singing “In Praise of Women” from A Little Night Music, while Strallen became a beautifully bemused and bitter Desiree singing “Send in the Clowns” from that same masterwork. Pfeiffer broke our hearts with a wrenching “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along, while Donica perfectly captured the exuberance of “Love, I Hear” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And I could go on.
Having attended many Lyrics & Lyricists shows over the years, mostly with felicitous results, I still contend this pitch-perfect show (to use the title of another Sondheim song) is the best thing that has ever happened to this series. Perhaps, it can be encored next season!
Isn’t It Bliss? Sondheim on Love was performed June 18-20 at the 92NY (1395 Lexington Avenue).
Photos: Richard Termine