BWW Reviews: Tony Winners Ebersole & Stokes-Mitchell Honor Snowed in Sondheim
As Kern and DeSylva wrote in their timeless standard, one must always "look for the silver lining." Sometimes even in disappointment, comes something wonderful, which was certainly the case with the magnificent impromptu showcase that occurred at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa on Saturday, October 29.
A mixed blessing if there ever was one, the evening's original agenda—which was devised mostly as a one-on-one candid conversation between host Michael Kerker (ASCAP's Director of Musical Theatre) and legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim—instead morphed into an enchanting 100-minute expanded tribute concert featuring two veteran Broadway powerhouses in their own right: Tony Award winners Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes-Mitchell.
A year in the planning, Stephen Sondheim: In Conversation was supposed to feature a somewhat rare opportunity for a live audience to hear first-hand testimony from Sondheim himself about his remarkable life and extraordinary body of work. The cherry on this delectable Sundae On The Stage With Stephen was that a pair of Broadway superstars will also be on hand to demonstrate a few of those select ditties live—which would have been a total of just six songs between them.
Alas, mother nature intervened on these plans and dropped a powerful snowstorm on New York City, causing several East Coast flights—including Sondheim's—to be grounded. Ticket holders of the sold-out event were e-mailed that though Sondheim was unable to make the show, they were still welcome to show up to a free "bonus concert" (Kerker assured the audience that the show as it was intended—with Sondheim—will be rescheduled for a later date). So, as the saying goes in the unpredictable world of live theater, the show must go on... and, boy, did it!
Instead of shuttering the evening's itinerary altogether, good sports Ebersole and Stokes-Mitchell—along with musical director (and piano accompanist) Tedd Firth—hastily "cobbled together" a new program within the span of just two-plus hours earlier that afternoon. The resulting "accidental" concert ended up being one of the most polished, flawless concerts the Center's Cabaret Series has ever produced. The two incredible performers—both of whom are blessed with dramatic flair, impeccable comic timing, and, of course, amazing voices—traded stirring solos and shared superb duets.
And instead of Sondheim himself providing disclosures, Kerker provided plenty of interesting background information and intriguing anecdotes to explain many of the behind-the-scenes motivations and origins of Sondheim's songs in between the performances. Hilariously, the backstage story of how the concert came together also became part of the show, as well as a few personal recollections from Ebersole and Stokes-Mitchell themselves about Sondheim touched their lives. (Neither has been in an actual Sondheim show on Broadway, though Stokes-Mitchell has done a multi-day stint as Sweeney Todd in Washington D.C. before, while Ebersole has auditioned with and for Sondheim early in her career).
Though he was physically not there, Sondheim's spirit pretty much hovered in the room like an omniscient higher power. They even set out a spot-lit empty chair across from Kerker in his honor, which Ebersole humorously pointed out as a gesture akin to "holding a place for him... like Elijah."
At one point, even before the evening's revised program began, Kerker surprised the audience by introducing a familiar booming voice from the heavens: Sondheim himself! Speaking via speakerphone from his snowed-in home in New York, the musical theater god welcomed the patrons at the sold-out concert hall and apologized for his weather-related absence. Kerker even briefly lobbed a few questions his way, including one about mentoring younger, up-and-coming musical theater composers just as he was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein III. "I've never met a writer who was satisfied with their work," offers Sondheim. "Actually, let me rephrase that: I've never met a good writer who was satisfied with their work." He wasn't kidding when he assured the crowd that he was leaving the evening in very capable hands.
The spectacular musical performances themselves offered a full evening's worth of beautifully-rendered Sondheim classics that only barely scratched the surface of the composer's true genius. Wowing the audience right from the start, the show opened with the pair doing an adorable duet on "You Must Meet My Wife" from Sondheim's last huge revival A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (Sondheim currently has another hit on Broadway, the revival of FOLLIES). This was followed by a pair of songs from ANYONE CAN WHISTLE: Stokes-Mitchell on the tongue-twisting "Everybody Says Don't" and Ebersole on the beautiful title song, which, I must say, was hands down the best version of the song I have ever heard. Just marvelous. (Fun fact courtesy of trivia-maven Kerker: ANYONE CAN WHISTLE which closed after just 9 performances in 1964 featured Angela Lansbury in her Broadway debut. Jerry Herman caught her in the show and later famously cast her in MAME which led to her first Tony Award)
One song in the set list, as Kerker pointed out, is the sole selection of the night that was not credited to Sondheim: "The Boy From..." An amusing ditty from Mary Rodgers' off-Broadway revue THE MAD SHOW—with an uncanny resemblance to Antonio Carlos Jobim's hit "The Girl from Ipanema"—the song's lyrics were contributed by Sondheim under the pseudonym Esteban Rio Nido. Ebersole tackles the song with great wit and fun playfulness.
And as expected, Ebersole and Stokes-Mitchell were consistently amazing all evening, one-upping previous performances with each new song. Stokes-Mitchell, a powerful orator with a booming, commanding presence—and a killer voice to match—was just as excellent in power ballads as he was even in lighter, frothier moments like his duet with Ebersole on the morning-after pillow talk of "Barcelona" (from COMPANY). His takes on "Loving You" from PASSION—a song normally sung by a female character—and "Sorry/Grateful" from COMPANY are but a small sampling of his way of piercing through your heart with just one well-placed, highly emotional note (or, in this case, several of them in succession).
For her part, Ebersole once again proved why she is one of Broadway's true first-class, top tier talents. A power belter but also a very controlled one, she attacks fierce anthems with high drama, but can caress softer moments with the gentlest ease. She doesn't just sing a song—she acts it, letting the song embody every part of her soul. She's also a smart performer, providing each song with the right amount of pathos or humor required to sell it. Her moving, pitch-perfect version of "Send In The Clowns" (from COMPANY) was a true showstopper. Hearing her gorgeous take on the pop hit alone was worth being in the audience that evening.
She's an impressive dramatic artist but also quite a swell comedian. This duality couldn't have been more evident than her climatic medley of the deliciously bawdy "Fox Trot" and the declarative "I'm Still Here" (both from FOLLIES). Incidentally, "I'm Still Here"—which got quite a long applause afterwards—was a song she also sang at 22 years old in front of Sondheim himself during her audition for SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM.
Together, the two have an easy chemistry and really play off one another so well that it's surprising to realize that the two haven't co-headlined a show before. For what Kerker describes as the "9:30 number" (as opposed to the "11 o'clock number") the pair gave an amusing, very well-acted rendition of "A Little Priest" (from SWEENEY TODD) closing the show on a boisterous, slightly naughty high.
Among other highlights included a trio of songs Kerker described as Sondheim's unique take on women: Stokes-Mitchell on "In Praise of Women" (from A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC) and "Pretty Women" (from SWEENEY TODD) and Ebersole's sensational, standing ovation-worthy rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch" (from COMPANY). This bonus concert did accomplish one thing: whet everyone's appetite for the rescheduled concert—with Sondheim—to be announced at a later date.
Overall, the impromptu concert was such an exquisite showcase that the fact that these accomplished professionals pieced together this show on the fly sang volumes of the immense artistry of everyone involved. The staggering talent between the two Tony Award-winning Broadway luminaries was only equalled by the exquisite songbook of Sondheim gems the two presented. This ad-hoc concert became such a magical night, filled with gorgeous, soul-stirring performances, lots of hearty laughs, and even the occasional tear-jerker. What an unforgettable gift this show turned out to be!
Here's hoping Sondheim books a flight to Costa Mesa fairly soon and that mother nature cooperates. Also, I hope the Center finds a way to have Sondheim there and have Ebersole and Stokes-Mitchell sing more than just six songs altogether.
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The Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2011-2012 Cabaret Series continues with Tony winner Chita Rivera (Nov. 10-13); Tony winner Paulo Szot (Dec. 15-18); and Grammy winning Jazz artist Steve Tyrell (Jan. 5-8, 2012). As of press time, the rescheduled performance date for Stephen Sondheim: In Conversation has not been set.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.SCFTA.org.