BWW Review: Melissa Errico Sings Sondheim Like Never Before at Feinstein's/54 Below
The first Sondheim revue I ever saw was in 2002. Barbara Cook hypnotized audiences with MOSTLY SONDHEIM at Lincoln Center, inspired by a list that the famous wordsmith had published in a conversation with The New York Times called "Songs I'd Wished He'd Written." I remember, as a teenager, being swept away by Cook's stories and insights that brought his songs to life as she wove in songs that Sondheim wished he had penned with the masterpieces that made him a musical giant that has inspired so many.
There are busloads of Sondheim revues, tributes, and cabaret acts, and even a song I remember hearing in one cabaret act appropriately titled, "Everybody Wants to be Sondheim." Sondheim-themed album after Sondheim-themed albums, we're left wondering if it is really necessary to hear another wistful rendition of "Send in the Clowns," or "Move On."
In Melissa Errico's latest show, Melissa Errico SINGS SONDHEIM, at the famed Feinstein's/54 Below, she performed both of these over-performed showstoppers, yet I felt as though I was hearing them for the first time. What was so magical about the night of interwoven song and dialogue?
I first saw Ms. Errico on stage when AMOUR had a short-lived run on Broadway in 2002. What I remember even more profoundly than her scene-stealing ingénue ballads or infectious charm, vulnerability, and wit with which she played the "damsel in distress," was the deep reverence she had for composer Michel Legrand's music. It was no surprise to see that Errico expressed the same admiration and appreciation for another gifted composer's work in her act at Feinstein's.
Entering through the audience to sing "Something's Coming" from WEST SIDE STORY, Errico carries a youngish optimism and experienced discernment that starts the show with a special excitement. Errico's silky smooth voice and lightning speed vibrato seemed to make the entire room quiver with delight.
"If anyone doesn't know who Stephen Sondheim is, you can leave now. You're in the cult," she teases. This savvy songstress's knowledge and respect for the music she sings pays off. It's what elevates this cabaret act to something more than just a collection of songs but an actual experience for all who were fortunate enough to witness it. You could literally hear the audience either left breathless between songs, or actually talking back to her as she recounted some of her favorite Sondheim anecdotes, and was able to strike a careful balance of sharing personal encounters with the composer, with staying humble and accessible.
Errico is a powerhouse known for her impeccable vocal phrasing and tantalizing journeys through song. The layman might have attended the show to hear her beautiful voice, which was plenty enough reason. I certainly expected no less of her effortless, legit range, soaring soprano prowess and trembling timber. But her show took audiences on a journey that transcended vocal craft.
She introduced her "Sondheim theme" by telling us about the first time she met Sondheim, while she was actually performing. He commented on her performance, saying, "You were wonderful, most of the time." This was Melissa's gift of delivery for the night, and a magic that lifted the audience far off the ground for the following hour. All of her stories were delivered with such humor (some endearingly self-deprecating) and humility, but were furthermore always quickly followed by deep reflection, making her stories more than just witty banter and trite commentary, but rather, a deep "behind the scenes" perceptiveness that even a Sondheim nerd may not have not considered.
"I'm going to share the pieces that linger for me. Listen to the harmonies," she instructs, played by the wondrous Tedd Firth, who has a gift for capturing the melodic intricacies that make Sondheim great. "Like a breeze, wisdom is going to pass by," she said. Through Errico's unique combination of insights and talent (and also her surprising gift for gutsy humor), she manages to make Sondheim both profound and engaging and, most importantly, entertaining and enjoyable.
It's hard to remember that with such a knack for ballads and a smooth soprano jewel of a voice, that Errico has such an exceptional flair for comedy, and the highlight of the night was "Everybody Loves Louis" from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, a show she starred in as Dot/Marie in the first major revival. For a song that Ms. Bernadette Peters so clearly inhabited in the original Broadway production, Errico more than holds her own, and even shares some great stories about her experience playing the role.
Other songs that brought down the house, were "No More" from INTO THE WOODS and the comedic "Getting Married Today," generating uproarious laughs and applause as Errico zipped through the bantering song with a veil, leaving us as breathless as she was by the end of the song. Afterwards, Errico was left to contemplate love and marriage with "Marry Me a Little" from COMPANY, singing the words with a new resonance and meaning.
Yes, Errico did sing "Send in the Clowns" and "Children Will Listen," two ballads that are done frequently in the world of cabaret. But she has an ownership that is all her own. When she declares, "Listen to me" in the INTO THE WOODS ballad, she sings it with such fierceness, as though it is a call to action that transcends.
There are beautiful lyrics in "Marry Me a Little" that say, "We'll build a cocoon of love and respect." Surely enough, that is what Melissa Errico managed to do in this beautiful Sondheim tribute. With a unique encore of "Not While I'm Around" with a tantalizing samba drum beat, Errico leaves the stage, leaving us with a deeper hunger than we came in with. The true gift of a singer is one who makes you feel as though you've heard these songs for the very first time. I say, send those clowns in again!
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD specialist, artist, author, health advocate, award-winning actress, and playwright. She is currently touring her one-woman musical, GUTLESS AND GRATEFUL, across the country. Her work can be found at amyoes.com.