By Brian Scott Lipton
With the 90th birthday of the great Stephen Sondheim set to occur on March 22, 2020, we’ll be hearing plenty of the theatrical master’s music and lyrics on Broadway, in concert halls, and in cabarets over the next several months. Fortunately, there can never be too much of a good thing (going), nor is there a more delightful way to begin celebrating this milestone than by dropping into the Café Carlyle where that musically gifted married couple, John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, are paying a very fitting tribute to the composer (and his frequent producing partner, the late Hal Prince) in their latest show.
Unsurprisingly, the couple’s real-life husband-and-wife status provides an extra bonus when tackling some of Sondheim’s classic songs about relationships, such as the witty “The Little Things You Do Together,” the sardonic “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” and the poignant “Sorry-Grateful” (all from Company); in each song, the lyrics seem to flow from personal experience. And speaking of extra bonuses, it was a thrill to have original Follies cast member Harvey Evans in the house as the pair offered up such wonderful songs from that landmark 1970 show as “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” and “Buddy’s Blues.”
There may be little to be sure of in this world, but anyone who’s witnessed one of the couple’s previous engagements at the Carlyle (this is their 13th show at the fabled boite) can count on two things: Brilliant pairings of songs you might not have put together in your head and witnessing Pizzarelli’s peerless skill on the guitar. The latter promise is delivered to magnificent effect on a pure-jazz version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” (from Sweeney Todd) and a very simple, if simply gorgeous, instrumental version of A Little Night Music’s classic ballad “Send in the Clowns.” You might never think of those songs in the same way again.
When it comes to the couple’s famed medleys, even if one already realized that Sondheim often revisits familiar themes in his works, you hear them so much more clearly when they’re put together this smartly. For example, Molaskey’s stunning rendition of “Remember” (from A Little Night Music) is paired with Pizzarelli’s beautifully understated version of “The Road You Didn’t Take” (from Follies), providing a marvelous meditation on the meaning of memory.
Similarly, when the heartbreaking “Something Just Broke” (from Assassins) is complemented by the defiant “Now You Know” (from Merrily We Roll Along), you suddenly understand the sorrows of adulthood in a different way, just as by hearing “Children Will Listen” (from Into The Woods) performed with “Children and Art” (from Sunday in the Park With George), you may discover a new appreciation for the difficulty –and joy – of being a parent.
Lucky for us, too, the couple bends the unwritten rules to end the show with their most famous medley: Jon Hendricks’ jazz classic “Cloudburst” with Sondheim’s hilarious, tongue-twisting “Getting Married Today” (stunningly arranged by Jason Robert Brown), which never fails to put a big smile on my face. We’re lucky, too, that the couple are accompanied throughout the program by the wonderful pianist Konrad Paszkudzki and bassist Mike Karn.
Stephen Sondheim. Hal Prince. John Pizzarelli. Jessica Molaskey. Here’s to them. Who’s like them? Damn few!
Photos: David Andrako
John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey continue at the Café Carlyle (35 East 76th Street) through November 16. Visit www.ticketweb.com
800-405-2027 for information.