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BWW CD Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED Honors A Legend and Preserves a Movement

Phil Geoffrey Bond brings his eleven-year-old stage show to the recording studio.

BWW CD Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED Honors A Legend and Preserves a Movement

Eleven years ago Phil Geoffrey Bond created the cabaret series SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED and he has been driving that train ever since, to the delight of the actors who get to tell Mr. Sondheim's stories and for the benefit of the audiences who get to hear them. Now, thanks to time provided by the show business shutdown of 2020 and 21 and the tenacity of some of those lucky actors, Mr. Bond has created the first ever cast album of SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED, excitingly sub-titled The NYC Sessions VOLUME ONE (that's the exciting part).

SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED is a two-disc CD set (or a streaming 42 song set) that provides listeners with nearly two-and-a-half hours of music, all based on the Sondheim Unplugged series, featuring many singers performing songs that they presented to live audiences over the last decade (plus) of shows. Keeping in line with Bond's mission statement to keep performances simple and stripped down in order to showcase the compositions themselves, each track is built upon the relationship between a singing actor, a Maestro (Musical Director Joseph Goodrich), and THE Maestro. The intimacy documented on each track captures, considerably, the experience of witnessing the performances in person, including some character informed numbers that, as a recording, might seem a bit over-the-top but that, as representations of Sondheim's theatricality, appear as accurate portrayals of Mrs. Lovett, Phyllis Rogers Stone, Pseudolus, and even all of The Jets, courtesy of only one actor. These theatrically overloaded recordings are judiciously spaced throughout the album, giving way to recordings with a quieter tone like Michael Winther's gorgeous Merrily We Roll Along mash-up, or provocatively arranged treatments like Julie Reyburn's "Not While I'm Around", but the grandstand-y musical monologues are not the only drama-informed numbers on the album. Observe the commitment of Teri Ralston and Sally Mayes on their respective performances of "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Send in the Clowns" - even without the benefit of having the actresses on a stage before you, the emotional connection is powerful enough to paint the proper picture in your mind's eye. Note the preservation of a "Broadway Baby" that stays true to Mr. Sondheim's original intent while allowing Michelle to get her Dowdy on, and a welcome chance for Annie Golden to return to the scene of the crime with a compelling "Unworthy of Your Love" with Mr. Winther. Here is an album of specific vignettes created between an actor, a musical director, and their mutual muse, then curated by the producer for the benefit of the listener.

With so rich and rewarding a treasure trove of recordings from which to choose, it should be difficult to pick a favorite, so Sondheim aficionados will want to take particular note of two different performances by Eric Michael Gillett, who demonstrates all of the storytelling skills that have made him the renowned actor that he is today. Also snagging two separate numbers that are both highlights on the album is Blaine Alden Krauss who has happily documented a version of "The Glamorous Life" that is taking on an iconic life of its own, as well as a heart-melting "No One Is Alone" that makes one wonder how much longer the world will have to wait for the Blaine Alden Krauss solo album. Enjoy, to the fullest extent, Brian Charles Rooney's strong, sexy "Sooner Or Later" and the authoritative, aching "I Remember" by Lina Koutrakos, but take care as you approach the ending of each Act of Sondheim Unplugged, for a bounty of emotion awaits as the final two tracks of disc one and disc two take you in their grasp and leave you weeping and wondering what life would have been like without Stephen Sondheim's contribution to the arts.

At the end of Act One, Danielle Ferland's "Children and Art" is not only a reward in the knowledge of the actress's continued Sondheim-informed career, it allows all who have witnessed that career to participate in her legacy, immaculately realized in this performance. Following up Ferland to close out the disc is an arrangement of "Being Alive" that takes the onus off of the singers' need to emote and places it on unfathomable vocal abilities and breathtaking harmonies from Christina Bianco, Carole J. Bufford, and Scott Coulter; the recording does, literally, leave one breathless. As for the final two cuts on the second disc, Ms. Bianco joins Claybourne Elder for an unpretentious, nuanced recording of "Color And Light" that honors the original performances but that reminds one that George and Dot belong to any and everyone who has ever loved art and artists. Art and artists are undoubtedly the reason why Mr. Bond chose to end Volume One with "Sunday", and though the world is accustomed to hearing the cast album recordings that present the peaceful anthem as a choral number, Charlie Levy seems to be a one-man chorus on his own, capable of capturing not only all the tones of all the singers, but all the colors in the painting. It is a perfect way to end a near-perfect album.

The near-perfect is an imbalance in the diversity of the cast. There's no point in being coy about it but there's also no need to go on about it - there are too few performers of color on this recording. Hopefully, the two volumes still to come of SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED will showcase greater diversity, a focus that every person who produces, directs, creates or curates should place on the front burner, from this moment to the end of time. In the meantime, lovers of theater, music, and Stephen should rejoice, for Sondheim Unplugged The New York Sessions Volume One has come into the light, and that is a good thing that has happened at just the right time: a time to remember and a time to give, a time to celebrate life, art, and storytelling. Here is an album that will inspire people to do it all.

Disc One

1. Something's Coming - Marquee Five

2. Broadway Baby - Michelle Dowdy

3. What Can You Lose? - Nicholas Rodriguez

4. The Right Girl - Aaron Ramey

5. The Boy From - Lucia Spina

6. Sooner or Later - Brian Charles Rooney

7. Someone Is Waiting / Pretty Women - Alton Fitzgerald White

8. Everybody Ought to Have a Maid - Jim Brochu

9. I Remember - Lina Koutrakos

10. The Glamorous Life - Blaine Krauss

11. Ariadne - Eric Michael Gillett

12. Gee, Officer Krupke - Jacob Hoffman

13. Multitudes of Amys - John Treacy Egan

14. In Buddy's Eyes - Teri Ralston

15. Old Friends / Like it Was - Donna Vivino

16. Good Thing Going / Growing Up - Michael Winther

17. By the Sea - Liz McCartney

18. Send in the Clowns - Sally Mayes

19. Children and Art - Danielle Ferland

20. Being Alive - Christina Bianco, Carole J. Bufford and Scott Coulter

Disc Two

1. The Ballad of Sweeney Todd - Marquee Five

2. Agony - Tally Sessions and Jeff Kready

3. What More Do I Need? - Lucia Spina

4. No One Is Alone - Blaine Krauss

5. Changing / Beautiful - Melanie Vaughan and Courter Simmons

6. Let Me Entertain You / Broadway - Kate Loprest

7. Unworthy of Your Love - Annie Golden and Michael Winther

8. Live Alone and Like It - Karen Mason

9. There Won't Be Trumpets - Gabrielle Stravelli

10. Your Eyes Are Blue - Stearns Matthews

11. The Story of Lucy and Jessie - Victoria Cook

12. Talent - Hunter Ryan Herdlicka

13. Not While I'm Around - Julie Reyburn

14. The Road You Didn't Take - Eric Michael Gillett

15. On the Steps of the Palace - Erica Spyres

16. Maria - Brian Charles Rooney

17. The Ladies Who Lunch - Alice Ripley

18. Someone in a Tree - Jacob Hoffman

19. Rain on the Roof - Stearns Matthews and Natalie Arneson

20. I'm Still Here - Marta Sanders

21. Color and Light - Claybourne Elder and Christina Bianco

22. Sunday - Charlie Levy

Sondheim Unplugged The New York Sessions Volume One is a 2021 release on the Yellow Sound Label. It is available on all streaming platforms and in disc format.

THIS is the Sondheim Unplugged website.

HERE is the Yellow Sound Label website.

BWW CD Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED Honors A Legend and Preserves a Movement

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