BWW Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED Remains Fresh and Exciting at 54 Below After 90 Shows
I finally got around to seeing an installment of SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED and, boy, am I mad at myself for waiting so long. Now my whole day is spent wondering what I missed at the first 90 shows. Yeah, NINETY - Sondheim Unplugged has been doing one show a month at 54 Below since 2010. Last night I caught their 91st performance and I may have missed the first 90, but I won't be missing anymore because this is the best show of this nature I've yet seen and it's all because of Phil Geoffrey Bond. In a city that boasts the Broadway Sings series, An Evening With... series, Serving You Sondheim, and all of the various Scott Siegel series, Mr. Bond has something extra that he brings to Sondheim Unplugged: himself. Group concerts that are theme-centric can have hosts who bring facts and trivia to the show without bringing themselves to the party, simply reading off factoids like so much Ferris Bueller classroom action, droning on ad nauseum while the club patrons do their laundry lists, count the fresnels in the light grid, or chat loudly until the next singer arrives. None of that in a Phil Geoffrey Bond show, no, no. Mr. Bond brings all of his personality to the Sondheim evening, telling the tales to us with his own style, his own flavor, and his own flair, providing a foundation upon which the other artists on the stage can build the musical portion of the show, creating a fully-balanced club act that can be completely and totally enjoyed to the extreme. Together, Bond and co. were in top form last night, as one suspects they always are.
The cast for Sondheim Unplugged changes every month but Bond and Musical Director Joe Goodrich are always on the stage, Bond serving as emcee and Goodrich providing music from his one grand piano that sounds like an entire orchestra. The concept behind the show is to dial it way back to just voices and piano celebrating Sondheim in his simplest, most accessible nature, but Goodrich's arrangements provide accompaniment for the singing actors that feels like a cast album. The work he did arranging and playing the Marquee Five numbers combined with those five voices and one harmony to make magic worthy of a storyline in Into The Woods. Indeed, there was not one musical misstep in the 90-minute concert. Bond curated an incredible company of actors, each with a different sound, each sound befitting of a Sondheim song (not all voices can handle it), and each actor put forth an effort that caused in the audience moments of pure silence, and reactions of rapt appraisal, sincerely earned and delivered.
The thing about a Sondheim show that is tricky, though, is deciding how much you can change the music. Sondheim fans are not always apt to welcome a quantum leap from the music that they know and love to the versions of that music being offered. All together, the creative team from last night's show made very minor adjustments to the music, with Marquee Five getting some opportunities with "Being Alive" and "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" that come with a harmonizing vocal group. The vocal parts actually might be remarkably close to what is being sung on cast albums, but with the simplicity of Goodrich's piano and the precise amplification at 54 Below, the delicacy created by each singer became musical phrasing under a microscope, and it was beautiful. Other minor changes occurred when the great and glorious Sally Mayes performed "I'm Still Here" with every note as written, allowing her acting prowess to provide her individual life-story into the song, until the final moments when that Sally Mayes jazz style crept blissfully into some of the interpretation, making the Mayes devotees in the room happier than one moment before. Little acting choices took Sierra Rein's "Moments in the Woods" and Sarah Rice's "Stay With Me" into personal little corners of storytelling that might have sparked a little something new in the interpretation, and both ladies had the audience in the palms of their hands the whole time. The most drastic change in Sondheim's music last night came in the form of a jazzy uptempo of "No One Has Ever Loved Me" by Gabriel Mudd -- it shouldn't have worked but it did, thank goodness because it was really nice. As for the rest of the night, Bond and Goodrich made the savvy choice to have the actors stick close to their scores and deliver performances that could, easily, get casting forces in the audience looking around for a production of Follies for Erica Spyres & Stephen Carlile or an Into the Woods for Mudd and Edward Miskie, not to mention the fun factor of Rein, Kate Loprest and Lucia Spina doing "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." Not one of the actors would be out of place in one of the shows they were representing, particularly George Dvorsky, who ended the evening singing one of Di Rossi's songs from Do I Hear a Waltz, leaving a wish that there could be a production of the show just for him.
Especially apropos last night was Sarah Rice, the original Joanna in Sweeney Todd, singing Greenfinch and Linnet Bird in the original keys without a microphone. These are among the reasons to live in New York and go see theater, cabaret, and concerts - moments like this that cause awe for the history of this city and the art that is created here, art that is continually being created, even if isn't brand new art - even if it is the pleasure, the thrill, the satisfaction of hearing a song you know by heart being sung by an artist you didn't know four minutes ago, but with whom you are now besotted. This is the kind of delectation that can be found at Sondheim Unplugged and I, for one, do not intend to miss one more issue.
Look for me at Sondheim at Ninety on March 22nd because I'll be there.
For Sondheim Unplugged and all the great shows at 54 Below please visit their website
Being Alive from Company performed by Marquee Five
Host Phil Geoffrey Bond
The Ladies Who Lunch from Company performed by Sally Mayes
So Many People from Saturday Night performed by Kate Loprest
What More Do I Need? from Saturday Night performed by Lucia Spina
Stay With Me from Into the Woods performed by Sarah Rice
Moments in the Woods from Into the Woods performed by Sierra Rein
The Ballad of Sweeney Todd from Sweeney Todd performed by Marquee Five
Greenfinch and Linnet Bird from Sweeney Todd performed by Sarah Rice
Do I Hear a Waltz? from Do I Hear a Waltz? performed by Edward Miskie
Take the Moment from Do I Hear a Waltz? performed by George Dvorsky
Photos by Stephen Mosher