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BWW Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED by 54 Below Premieres Makes Impressive Debut

After ten years onstage the recurring concert series moves into a new realm.

BWW Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED by 54 Below Premieres Makes Impressive Debut

Celebrating ten years of shows in Manhattan, SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED isn't just one of the most entertaining shows in New York City - it's one of the most important. While presenting the history and songs of one of the greatest creators of musical theater, each installment of Sondheim Unplugged has been as professionally and perfectly put together an evening of entertainment as can be found, and last week the Phil Geoffrey Bond helmed series reached out into the internet with a new venture: a filmed concert presented by 54 BELOW PREMIERES.

BWW Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED by 54 Below Premieres Makes Impressive Debut

BWW Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED by 54 Below Premieres Makes Impressive DebutMr. Bond created the series a decade ago and has stayed committed to the quality of the show, lo, these many years. Naturally, that commitment extends into this filmed episode of the series - a film that should get the interest of executives working in television programming because this could easily serve as a prototype for a new show on PBS. Bond's work on the show reaches out in all directions like a theatrical octopod, informing who is cast, what they sing, the history shared and the trivia dispensed; like a modern-day Ziegfeld, Bond is involved in every aspect in the creation of the show and that is why it is so doggone good every time. This filmed concert is not only up to his usual standard, it goes above and beyond by casting for 2021 - this is one racially inclusive cast, the kind an audience rarely sees in a group show unless it is a show specifically centered on the works of a particular race. The only thing left for Phil Bond to do is make sure there are some transgender and non-binary artists in the next installment of the series. It is important to note, too, that the concert never, at any time, feels like Bond cast it especially for diversity - he just cast it, and the happy byproduct of his eye for talent is that the cast is inclusive. Bravo, Mr. Bond.

BWW Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED by 54 Below Premieres Makes Impressive Debut

BWW Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED by 54 Below Premieres Makes Impressive DebutNow, about the cast: they are so dreamy. Everything about them will make a viewer happy: they are all sublimely talented musicians and crackerjack actors - both gifts that, when combined, add up to some noteworthy entertainment. Beyond their beautiful faces and supreme talents, though, each of the actors has a unique gift that comes to the stage with them. Observe the multi-layered emotional connection that Telly Leung has with "Finishing the Hat" and you may feel your heart break or the intoxicating serenity of Nicholas Rodriguez's voice as it lulls you into the tranquil anguish of "Marry Me A Little" and you may just fall a little bit in love. Who else but T. Oliver Reid could draw serene smiles while superbly performing a sad song like "Anyone Can Whistle" and who else but Darius de Haas could serve as the living embodiment of Comedy and Tragedy masks with songs from West Side Story and Merrily We Roll Along? Let it not go unsaid that all of the performances in Sondheim Unplugged are guided under the watchful care of musical director Joe Goodrich, a boon to the production if ever there was one. Then there are women...

BWW Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED by 54 Below Premieres Makes Impressive Debut

Lucia Spina has been tasked with singing four of Sondheim's most iconic songs, and with each performance she steps firmly out of the shadows of performers who have come before her, making the songs her own. This writer has never been especially fond of singing actors who have a propensity for filling every moment of a musical performance with a physical or facial representation of the story being told, and Ms. Spina was on thin ice for a moment or two before I realized that this is neither an affectation nor a crutch - this is the result of intricate work from an actress so detailed in her exploration of the material that all the emotions have no choice but to flood from her, which is exactly as it should be. Indeed, her performance of "The Ladies Who Lunch" might well be one of the most original ever created, a rendition that caused no fewer than three laugh-out-loud moments from a song I've known intimately for thirty-two years. Meanwhile, Natalie Douglas, a woman known for the enormity of her personality, becomes the ultimate personification of excess within control by conquering a song that has become the Everest in musical theater ballads. Nearly every person who has sung "Losing My Mind" in the last forty-eight years has made such Herculean efforts to turn the song into the biggest tragedy in the audiences' experience that the song has gotten away from them. People forget that Dorothy Collins simply stood on the stage and sang the song, and let the chemical reaction between her and the audience fall where it may. When this concert debuted on December 26th, Natalie Douglas took back the simplicity of the song, choosing to return to the source material and source emotion; indeed, the loudest moment in Douglas' performance is one thunderous tear rolling down her left cheek and into her mouth. Whattaya know? It turns out that Natalie Douglas was made for the movie camera.

BWW Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED by 54 Below Premieres Makes Impressive DebutI have waxed poetic about the women of this film, but that should not diminish the message of the big picture: this is a stellar and starry cast, each and every one of them, and their contributions to the concert are precisely what audiences deserve when they enter a cabaret room or stream a cabaret show - that is not news because this is the kind of impeccable casting fans of Sondheim Unplugged have come to expect from Phil Geoffrey Bond. As for his own onscreen contributions, Mr. Bond continues to be one of the best emcees in the cabaret and club industry - whip-smart, wickedly funny, as impassioned by Sondheim as ever, always accessible and easy to listen to. There is a device, a stylistic choice in documentary filmmaking employing on-camera interviews, that makes use of two cameras - one in front of the interviewee and one to the side - with edits that cut back and forth during their speech. It doesn't actually work for Phil Geoffrey Bond because his personality and his rhetoric are so engaging that it feels like he is talking right through the lens, directly to you; this technique forces Bond to often be looking beyond the camera or away from it. Here is a man and a personality that should be looking you right in the eye when he talks to you, even through a lens - he's that interesting and that appealing. It might be nice to see a change in this style when filming the next episode of Sondheim Unplugged, one that permits Bond a more personal oration - and there should be future chapters in this story. In fact, this particular film should not be retired on January 23rd, it should be marketed as merch, it should be the beginning of a new online series through a streaming platform. This filmed concert and the one that will hopefully follow should be available for people to enjoy in perpetuity.

Just like Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim Unplugged can be streamed on-demand through January 23rd (for now) at 54 Below Premieres HERE.

BWW Review: SONDHEIM UNPLUGGED by 54 Below Premieres Makes Impressive Debut


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