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Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED Triumphantly Returns at 54 Below

Phil Geoffrey Bond's monthly Sondheim Revue Enchants

Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED Triumphantly Returns at 54 Below

I got through all of last year

And I'm here......

Before the end of the first song, there was thunderous applause at the return of SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED to 54 Below after having been absent, in fact, all of last year. For those of you, like me, who have never been to a SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED show, it is the creation of impresario Phil Geoffrey Bond. It is a simple concept. It is a monthly event at which he gathers a group of guest stars who sing songs by Stephen Sondheim, accompanied only by a piano. The entire evening is hosted and curated by Mr. Bond who also provides tidbits of history and trivia about the songs we are hearing. The series is in its eleventh season. Tonight's show was number 93.

I discovered Sondheim in my sophomore year of high school in Texas when I heard the Original Cast album of Sweeney Todd, which was brand new at the time. As a teenage drama student, needless to say, my mind was blown. I saved up for months from my meager salary working at Jack in the Box so that I could buy the piano-conductor score of the show, which in 1979 cost the unbelievable sum of $100. It's still one of my most prized possessions. I've been a devoted "Sond-head" ever since.

Tonight's cast was a very well rounded group of Broadway performers including Marta Sanders (The Best Little Whorehouse n Texas,) Aaron Ramey (Bridges of Madison County, Jekyll & Hyde, Young Frankenstein, The Visit, ) Briana Carlson-Goodman (Hair, Doctor Zhivago, Les Miserables,) Jacob Hoffman (When Pigs Fly,) Michael Winther (Flying Over Sunset, The 33 Variations, Mamma Mia,) Martín Sola (The King & I, Coram Boy, On Your Feet,) Lucia Spina (Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde, Spelling Bee) and my favorite fellow Texan, Sally Mayes (Welcome to the Club, Closer Than Ever, She Loves Me.) Tonight's show included songs from West Side Story, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, and Sunday in the Park With George. Special kudos to Jonathan Fisher, for navigating all this complicated material on the keys.

Marta Sanders kicked off the evening with the well-received "I'm Still Here" I mentioned earlier. Aaron Ramey told us about "The Right Girl." Briana Carlson-Goodman gave us a beautiful, gender-bending version of "Maria." Jacob Hoffman made a solo tour-de-force out of "Gee, Officer Krupke," playing all the parts. Michael Winther gave us a beautiful medley of "Good Thing Going," from Merrily We Roll Along and "Growing Up," a song that was added for Franklin Shepard after the original production.

Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED Triumphantly Returns at 54 Below

Continuing with Merrily, Briana Carlson-Goodman heartbreakingly sang "Not a Day Goes By." Martin Sola, making his SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED debut, gave a very passionate performance of "Being Alive."

Sally Mayes took the stage to put a very fascinating spin on "The Ladies Who Lunch." Stritch played the song with an acerbic intensity. Mayes played the character with almost giddy self-absorption. It was a clever and effective re-invention of this classic one-act play in song.

Jacob Hoffman, gave "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" the intensity of Sweeney Todd's "Epiphany." It made for wonderful comedy. Lucia Spina sang a perfectly sensual "The Miller's Son." Sally Mayes brought everyone to tears with a deftly conversational "Send in the Clowns."

Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED Triumphantly Returns at 54 Below

The surprising highlight of the evening was an astonishingly well-acted "Beautiful" from Sunday in the Park with George. Jacob Hoffman and Lucia Spina made me think about this song in a totally different way. I had always thought of it as a rare moment of connection between George Seurat and his imperious mother. Instead, they played the number as simultaneous monologues for two characters who find it almost impossible to connect. It was devastating.

Michael Winther put the perfect cherry on top of the Sondheim sundae, with another song from Sunday. "Finishing the Hat" is the perfect way to end an evening devoted to the sublime artistry of Mr. Sondheim. It was a joy, a pleasure, and an honor to hear his songs, unadorned, and for the most part, just the way he wrote them. I thank Phil Geoffrey Bond and all these wonderful artists for setting the inner "Sond-head" in me free for 70 delightful minutes.

Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED Triumphantly Returns at 54 Below

To learn more about SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED, join their group, SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED on Facebook. To find more great shows at 54 Below, go to 54below.com


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