By Martha Wade Steketee
The sixtieth edition of the Sondheim Unplugged concert series, that began its monthly adventures at the beloved Don’t Tell Mama venue on West 46th Street and is now ensconced at the more upscale Feinstein’s 54 Below, enchanted the crowd this past Sunday. This was my belated first visit to the convening, assembled and hosted with knowledge, humor, and grace by its founder Phil Geoffrey Bond.
The idea for the series was hatched in 2010, Bond told us, the year of many concerts and celebrations acknowledging Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday. His simple idea: create some informal concertizing opportunities, scale back production values to singers and a piano, and focus on Sondheim’s lyrics. This evening, Bond welcomed us with a linguistic reference to Garland and Pride. “We’re going to sing Sondheim all night and it’s not even Gay Pride.” The much-awarded series continues to inspire with young talent, established Broadway and cabaret performers, and a few glorious surprises.
Shows featuring Sondheim’s music and/or lyrics highlighted in this Sondheim Unplugged edition were Company (1970), Follies (1971), the televised musical Evening Primrose (1966), Gypsy (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim, 1959), and Anyone Can Whistle (1964). And from the first tune selection, I was prepared to expect anything.
The show’s set list began with an eleven o’clock number that almost sank the enterprise for me. Joshua Dixon delivered a serviceable version of every music-lover’s survival anthem from Company, the cry for human connection “Being Alive.” Where could a set list go from there, I wondered. What kind of dramatic arc was the evening going to follow? Lisa Sabin followed with a high energy but not-quite memorized version of the tongue twisting “Another Hundred People.” These seemed dicey initial numbers – we hadn’t built to anything yet. And yet, surprises and wonders awaited to set my mind at ease.
Lucia Spina provided humor and clarity in her performance of the oddball “The Ballad of Lucy & Jesse” from Follies – a vaudeville tune in a show that aches with human power without it. A number of other performances educated with backstory and historically useful slide shows of dramaturgical details (such as those that informed the introduction of the televised Evening Primrose,) rather than thrilled musically.
And then real history appeared on stage twice. Sarah Rice, the original Johanna in Sweeney Todd, took a deep and poignant dive into the lyrics of “I Remember” from Evening Primrose. And petite Lane Bradbury, in a long green velvet dress that only a tiny person could carry off, took us back to 1959 when she was a teenager and the original Broadway Dainty June in Gypsy. Along with musical director and pianist Joe Goodrich, she delivered a smashing version of her “If Mama Was Married” duet that brought the house down. Resonant history and contemporary performance meshed into a delightful present tense experience.
While there were additional performance worth mentioning for quirky entertainment value or sharing a tune cut from one of the featured musicals, two sequences featuring well-known cabaret performers who took a deft and fresh hand with well-known material absolutely floored me.
Natalie Douglas, featured in solo and ensemble shows at Birdland, the Metropolitan Room, and other locations around town, is known for a big full voice and a marvelous way around a jazz tune. This evening she delivered a ballad anthem for all love-challenged mature humans, “Losing My Mind” from Follies. She reined in her magnificent instrument to deliver a potent master class in restraint. “I want you so / It’s like I’m losing my mind.” Douglas never used her belt; she held her voice in check; she killed us with her acting.
Finally, Steve Ross, who held down the performance space at the Algonquin for years and continues to appear solo and with other cabaret artists around the world, usually delivers standards from behind a piano. For the first time in his career, he later told me, he stepped out from behind his piano while performing on stage. He began his two-tune set with a powerhouse unaccompanied vocal, straight to the audience, standing at the mic. His “With So Little to Be Sure Of” from Anyone Can Whistle was true and clear and potent and rivals any version of that tune I have heard. I can only hope that Ross chooses to deliver more tunes straight to us in the future, without giving his emotion to the piano first.
Sondheim Unplugged, Sunday December 11, 2016 at 7:00 pm. Feinstein’s/54Below (254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). For reservations and information, call 646-476-3551 or visit www.54Below.com
Photos: Martha Wade Steketee