By Andrew Poretz …

Theater Pizzazz was on hand for the 103rd edition of the Sondheim Unplugged series, now in its thirteenth year.  Series creator Phil Geoffrey Bond stepped down from his hosting role last year after an astounding 100 shows.  The series is in good hands with its new host, actor Rob Maitner.  The entertaining Maitner brings a different hosting vibe than the droll, slightly acerbic Bond, more akin to that of the theater kid stepping into a role he’s been training for all his life.  

These entertaining, informative shows are separated into blocks of songs representing specific Stephen Sondheim shows.  Maitner, who was also one of the performers, regaled the packed, eager audience with charming anecdotes and quotes between segments.  Many of these are new to some (like this reviewer) but familiar to the biggest Sondheim acolytes.  Aside from Maitner, the superb cast consisted of Alex Joseph Grayson, Ramona Mallory, Megan Masako Haley, Marissa McGowan, Aaron Ramey, Jon-Michael Reese, and the show’s producer, Lucia Spina.  Musical director John Fischer provided excellent accompaniment.

The show opened cold with a swell ensemble piece, “A Weekend in The Country” (A Little Night Music).  Ramona Mallory and Marissa McGowan started it off, and additional performers found their way to the stage throughout.  Notably, Ramona and Marissa last worked together in the 2009 revival of A Little Night Music

Host Rob Maitner took to the podium to discuss the flop Do I Hear a Waltz.  These were the only numbers performed on this night for which Sondheim was merely the lyricist.  The unmistakable Richard Rodgers musical motifs were apparent.  Lucia Spina, with a big voice and loads of personality, performed the title song with wonderful humor and panache.  Alex Joseph Grayson brought his rich, rangy baritone to “Take the Moment.

Follies received the most attention, with four songs.  In a fascinating anecdote, Maitner related that the show was inspired by a famous 1960 photo of Gloria Swanson standing in the ruins of the old Roxy Theatre.  Marissa McGowan sang a sexy “Broadway Baby,” a highlight of the evening.  The stunning Marissa, with her expressive blue eyes, is perfectly suited for this bluesy tune.  The flamboyant Jon-Michael Reese performed an appealing, gender-bending “In Buddy’s Eyes,” at times singing in countertenor. Mr. Maitner made impressive use of physical comedy and delivery on “Buddy’s Blues.”

Marissa McGowan

Marissa closed out this segment as an angry spouse with her excellent “Could I Leave You?”, a kind of “psycho waltz.”  She again displayed great timing and physical/facial expressions.

Ramona Mallory

The host turned his attention to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.  Megan Masako Haley made her first appearance with the funny “Lovely.”  Mr. Reese sang with a kind of Bobby Morse appeal on “Love I Hear.”  Ramona Mallory’s upper register was nearly reminiscent of Kathryn Grayson’s coloratura tones on a delightful “That Dirty Old Man.”  The host drily noted that not only was Sondheim snubbed by the Tony Awards, but not a single winner thanked him in acceptance speeches.

John Fischer and Alex Joseph Grayson

Sweeney Todd provided the next high point.  Alex Joseph Grayson, leaning into the piano, sang a gorgeous rendition of “Not While I’m Around,” one of Sondheim’s most covered songs.  Grayson, with smoldering good looks and a strong presence, had the most traditionally “commercial” voice of the cast.  He could be a very appealing recording artist. 

Megan Masako Haley

A head-scratcher was Megan Masako Haley’s entirely solo turn on “By the Sea,” self-accompanied on electric guitar.  Her guitar skills are rudimentary at best, and the guitar amp was set too loud, entirely overpowering her vocal.  An acoustic guitar might have worked better here.

Aaron Ramey, with his powerful baritone and his bearded presence reminiscent of Alfred Drake, performed a strong “Epihany” to close out the Sweeney Todd segment.

The show concluded with two numbers from Sunday in the Park with George. Ramona Mallory killed it on the title song, and Mr. Ramey returned for a fine, if nearly anticlimactic, “Finishing the Hat.”  This edition of Sondheim Unplugged was another one in the win column.  The cast was fairly strong, with standout performances by Marissa McGowan, Alex Joseph Grayson and Ramona Mallory.  Kudos to Rob Maitner and Lucia Spina for keeping this series at a high level of professionalism and joy.

Sondheim Unplugged took place on January 29 at 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street between EIghth Avenue and Broadway (

Photos: Andrew Poretz