By Steve Nardoni
In celebration of Halloween this year, Sondheim Unplugged showcased two excellent landmark musicals: the grand guignol Sweeney Todd and the fairytale cum “lessons for adults,” Into the Woods. And consistent with this series and the venue of Feinstein’s/54 Below, the performance was filled with extraordinary talent vocalizing the wonderous genius that is Stephen Sondheim.
There was no need for anyone on stage to dress in scary garb. These are macabre stories: a murderous barber slicing throats in absolute, and seemingly justifiable revenge; the fairy tale warning us to “Be Careful What You Wish For”; the subsequent human experiences of tragedy and loss; and the redemption of community. And who better to hammer (slice, dice, stab, punch) home these themes entertainingly but Sondheim. His extraordinary gift to many of us is his almost pathological ability to reel us in every time with the wonders of his songs, lyrics, harmonies and orchestration.
This is the second time I’ve had the privilege of reviewing one of the shows in this series founded 10 years ago by creator Phil Geoffrey Bond. He usually hosts, but Rob Maitner filled in quite spectacularly providing the same backstage patter so integral to enjoying the performances that followed. We’ll get to that.
What followed was a compendium of the marvelous songs from both shows that vocally sketched their individual themes The knock ‘em dead Marquee Five (the singers Mick Bleyer, Adam West Hemming, Vanessa Parvin, Sierra Rein, and Rebecca Graae) kicked off with “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” With only a piano and bass accompanying them, their voices rose and melded into perfect harmonies as required by this pounding, funereal intro to the musical. Later in the show they nail the repetitive blame-game “It’s Your Fault” from Into the Woods. We enjoyed the amazing Sarah Rice (the original Joanna in Sweeney Todd) as Cinderella in Woods singing sweetly about princess-wannabe indecisiveness with “On the Steps of the Palace.” Speaking of that lilting song, “Joanna” from Sweeney Todd, Evan Harrington sings with the plaintiveness that the plight of the obsessive love and yearning the character Anthony feels.
If I had to pick two songs that captured the essence of each musical (but let me say that all 20 songs performed this evening by this ensemble were outstanding), I’d have to choose “No One is Alone” from Into the Woods, deftly handled by Scott Coulter, a song that defines that our capacity for happiness comes from within; and “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd, in a hilarious gender-shift nailed by Rob Maitner and evocative of what macabre things people in desperate straits may do.
But back to some dirt. Rob shared that in the 1990s there were failed attempts to create a movie for Woods (which was eventually released on 2014). Purportedly, consideration was given to cast Robin Williams as the Baker, Goldie Hawn as the Baker’s Wife, Cher as the Witch, Danny DeVito as the Giant, Steve Martin as the Wolf, and Roseanne Barr as Jack’s Mother (this revelation garnered screeches and groans from this audience). And most fun was the story that Angela Landsbury in the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd would, out of sight of the audience but not some of the cast members, perform rolling the dough not into meat pies but into large schlongs. Ah ya gottta love her!
Sondheim Unplugged: Into Sweeney Todd’s Woods was presented October 27, 2019 at Feinstein’s 54 Below (254 West 54th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). The next performance of Sondheim Unplugged will be November 24. www.54below.com