By Andrew Poretz . . .
In the wake of Stephen Sondheim’s recent death at 91, there have already been countless tribute shows. Sondheim Unplugged, a curated evening of songs written by the composer and performed “unplugged” with just piano accompaniment, by Broadway and cabaret stars as well as some fresh faces, is no newcomer. This was the 94th Sondheim Unplugged since its 2010 inception, in residence at 54 Below since 2011. As always, the host was the series’ creator and producer, Phil Geoffrey Bond. Though reading from a funny, informative script, Bond responded to off-script moments with funny ad libs. Bond’s opening monolog was quite funny too. He told great stories about the show Company and a hysterical Sondheim anecdote that can’t be printed here.
The show had a reasonably significant audience in person. However, the venue now offers ticketed, high-quality live streaming of most of its shows, and there were several hundred additional paying audience members in attendance around the world. This is a terrific option for those who cannot get to the club, as well as for people not yet ready to venture out in the not-quite-post-pandemic world of live performance. Three albums of cast recordings from the series have been produced during the pandemic. The first volume, with 70 artists and 120 songs, has been released. The second and third will be released in March and June, respectively.
Evan Harrington, with a strong baritone, kicked things off with “Marry Me a Little” from Company. Bruce Sabath performed a fine “Happily Ever After,” a song cut from Company.
Alton Fitzgerald White sang a medley of “Someone is Waiting” and “Pretty Women,” from Company and Sweeney Todd, respectively. White has a deep, mellifluous low baritone with a high range, and a big stage presence.
Sarah Rice, who originated the role of Johanna in Sweeney Todd, still has a spectacular, thrilling soprano, used to great effect in her first song, “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from Sweeney Todd.
Gabrielle Stravelli is one of the best improvisational jazz singers in the country. It was a great surprise to hear her sing musical theater songs with only her unembellished, perfect voice and acting skills. Her usually curly hair was ironed straight, as if to underscore her more formal style here. She sang “The Girls of Summer” from the show of that title, a sexy, bluesy number intended for Lena Horne, who flatly refused it. After her knockout rendition of “The Miller’s Son” (from A Little Night Music) a few numbers later, Bond joked, “It’s really coming along, Gabby!”
Karen Mason sang a poignant “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, giving a master class in musical diction with her perfect elocution. The song was crafted explicitly for the very limited musical range of actress Glynis Johns, who is still alive at 98, yet has become a standard for singers who can act.
The young and lovely Lucy Austin, a recent college graduate, sang “Take Me to the World” from Evening Primrose. She has a beautiful, rangy voice.
Ramona Mallory killed it with the Sondheim oddity “I Remember,” from Evening Primrose. She is the daughter of the late Victoria Mallory, who performed this song in a 2010 edition of this series. With her beautiful voice and acting abilities, Ramona did a great job conveying the story, sung from the perspective of a woman trapped in a department store since childhood.
The most fun of the evening was saved for last. Lucia Spina is a marvel of personality and presence, with a very good voice and tremendous appeal. She sang the title song to “Sunday in the Park with George” with some off-stage “direction.” A medley of “Lesson #8” and “Move On” from the same show followed as the closing number. The latter was a terrific duet with Evan Harrington with powerful harmonies and counterpoint, a show stopper in any production.
Bond got big laughs with his closing remarks. “Thanks for coming. If you weren’t here, this would just seem so self-indulgent…. We’d still be here, but…”
The standard training for Broadway performers is to sing above audience members’ heads, not making eye contact. In an intimate nightclub it can seem a bit off-putting to watch a performer clearly singing to someone who isn’t there. Several cast members utilized this technique. A few connected directly with the audience, which some may find more satisfying in this context. The entire cast was excellent.
The longtime musical director and accompanist, Joseph Goodrich, is leaving the series. Still, there is no doubt that it will continue for a long time to come. It’s a great value for lovers of Stephen Sondheim and Broadway show tunes.
Photos: Andrew Poretz
Sondheim Unplugged – February 27, 2022
Musical Director and accompanist: Joseph Goodrich
Host: Phil Geoffrey Bond
Starring (in order of appearance):
Alton Fitzgerald White
Feinstein’s 54 Below 254West 54th Street New York, NY