By Marilyn Lester
As if a CD release isn’t enough to celebrate on its own, the féte for singer-songwriter Sara Zahn’s newly released Both Sides of Bernstein came with a happy-making bonus: its wonderful story of the nearly 30-year journey from inception to fruition. The result is an exquisite product well worth the wait. The 20 tracks of Bernstein material, deftly sung by the powerhouse that’s Zahn, is a praiseworthy double whammy of love and talent. The topper was Zahn’s live appearance––all too rare these days––to promote the CD from the stage of The Laurie Beechman Theatre. The spotlight is a natural environment for this multi-award winner, and neatly guided by director Barry Kleinbort, her natural, relaxed delivery of narrative and song was a treat.
Leonard Bernstein––conductor, composer, pianist, author, scholar and media personality––was a larger-than-life figure who could truly lay claim to the terms “icon” and “legend.” When he died in 1990, she was moved to write Both Sides of Bernstein as a tribute show, which was eventually recorded in Philadelphia. Flash forward, and those audiotapes found their way to Harbinger Records/The Musical Theater Project, where the CD resulted. The tribute is a fitting one on Bernstein’s centenary plus one year. With Allan Kashkin at the keys, the music director’s lush, orchestral style of playing perfectly supports the several musical styles of The Maestro and the range and flexibility of Zahn to execute each seamlessly.
Zahn’s opener, West Side Story’s “Cool” (lyrics, Stephen Sondheim) was an audaciously assertive, fun number, with a lady now of a certain age delivering a tune written for a young street punk. Zahn also visited West Side Story with a sweet “I Feel Pretty” (lyrics, Sondheim) and a beautifully phrased “Something’s Coming” (lyrics, Sondheim). Bernstein’s works often aren’t easy to sing. His chord progressions and harmonics can be challenging, especially in a work like his operatic musical, Candide––but Zahn’s range, clarity and strength of voice easily handled “We Are Women” (lyrics, Bernstein) and the enchanting “Make Our Garden Grow” (lyrics, Richard Wilbur).
“One Hundred Easy Ways” (lyrics, Bernstein) from Wonderful Town, showcased Zahn’s talent for comedy, especially with the “Rosalind Russell Story” track that precedes the song. Further demonstrating versatility, Zahn dipped into a jazz-blues mode for “Ain’t Got No Tears Left” (lyrics, Betty Comden and Adolph Green), cut from On the Town. Her torchy, noir delivery was as masterful as her command of the bouncy, patter-heavy “Wrong Note Rag” (lyrics, Comden and Green) from Wonderful Town. And as to Zahn’s ability to tell the story, one only need look to “I Love This Land” (lyrics, Alan Jay Lerner) from Bernstein’s last Broadway outing, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In sum, for lovers of Bernstein, or simply of great music sung with depth and skill, Sara Zahn’s Both Sides of Bernstein is for you.
CD Release Event October 6, 2019