BWW Reviews: The New York Pops Salute Stephen Sondheim

By: Nov. 28, 2010

Sondheim's 80th Birthday Celebration at Carnegie Hall happened last Friday November 19th, the last in a series of celebrations dedicated to the greatest living American composer. The event was a tribute to the man and his works, led by Steven Reineke and the New York Pops and featuring performances by Kate Baldwin, Christiane Noll, Aaron Lazar and Alex Gemignani.

Being a long-time Sondheim fan (his music was a large part of why I got into writing and musical theatre in the first place) I was thrilled to be asked to cover the event on behalf of BroadwayWorld. I love what I do, it is a wonderful opportunity and every event I cover is special, but to be asked to listen to the music of Mr. Stephen Sondheim in Carnegie Hall of all places was a true milestone in my life.

Determined to see the event be a great success (and bolstered by my own excitement at getting to hear the music live) I embarked on a series of interviews with all the main players, who talked with me at great length about their personal experiences with Sondheim, their love for his music and their enthusiasm for the birthday celebration. It was a theatre geeks dream come true, listening to people whose work I have respected for many years sharing their love of a man who's work I have respected my entire life.

Sadly, when the time came to actually go out and enjoy the show I was unable to attend. However, I was confident it would be an amazing night and was optimistic I would be able to find someone to take my place that would enjoy and appreciate the experience as much as I knew I would. Thankfully my Twitter friend and fellow theatre lover and blogger Kevin Daly was kind enough to step in and review the show on my behalf. Kevin is a long-time lover of musical theatre and well versed in all things Sondheim, and I'm happy to share his thoughts on the production with the BroadwayWorld readers:

Alex Gemignani, Kate Baldwin, Steven Reineke, Christiane Noll and Aaron Lazar

Much of this year has been devoted to honoring the legacy of Stephen Sondheim. The legendary composer-lyricist turned 80 on March 22 of this year and has been feted with a year-long celebration with concerts and galas. The festivities have also included his own Broadway revue and the rechristening of Henry Miller's Theatre in his honor. On Friday November 19, the New York Pops offered the Stephen Sondheim 80th Birthday Celebration at Carnegie Hall, the last in this series of tributes. The famed orchestra, under the musical direction of Steven Reineke, was joined by Broadway stalwarts Kate Baldwin (Finian's Rainbow), Aaron Lazar (The Light in the Piazza, A Little Night Music), Christiane Noll (Jekyll & Hyde, Ragtime) and Alexander Gemignani (Assassins, Sweeney Todd). The Essential Voices USA under the direction of Judith Clurman provided choral support throughout the one night only event. The production was staged by Casey L. McClellan, in a simple, forth right manner that kept the emphasis on the words and music. While there might have been an errant trumpet or muddled word here and there, the concert was wholly enjoyable, choosing some of Sondheim's best pieces.

The Pops started the evening with the brassy, infectious overture to Merrily We Roll Along (arr. Roland Shaw), conducted with endearing enthusiasm by Reineke, who spoke throughout the evening of his respect for the composer-lyricist and how Sondheim has been an inspiration to him as an artist. The soloists entered to sing a quirky group arrangement of "Comedy Tonight" from Forum. Baldwin sang Company's observational "Another Hundred People" as well as an utterly haunting rendition of "I Remember" from Evening Primrose. Gemignani and Noll sang "So Many People" and Noll offered a charming "What More Do I Need?" both from the delightful Saturday Night. Noll also provided a subtle "Send in the Clowns" before immediately switched gears to deliver a riotous, rapid-fire "Getting Married Today" from Company allowing the soprano the opportunity to showcase her offbeat sense of humor, complete with a slow-collapse to the stage floor. Aaron Lazar had the final solo of the first set, with an impassioned "Being Alive."

The first act ended with a staggering rendition of "A Weekend in the Country" from Night Music using the original Jonathan Tunick orchestration. Lazar recreated his Carl-Magnus from the current Broadway revival, Baldwin reprising Charlotte (a role she played to raves in 2008 at the Center Stage in Baltimore), Noll as Anne and Gemignani as Fredrik. Paul Betz and Renee Rakelle from the Essential Voices USA rounded out the sextet, with the entire chorale substituting for the Liebslieders during the song's thrilling climax.

The second act started with the Pops' performance of the "Sweeney Todd Symphonic Suite" (arr. by Don Sebesky). In a series of songs which dealt with male-female relationships from the masculine perspective, Gemignani sang a simple and pure rendition of "Not While I'm Around" and joined Lazar for the amusing "Agony" from Into the Woods. However, Gemignani reached his pinnacle with a smashing, all-stops-out performance of "Buddy's Blues" from Follies (and a role for which he'll be pitch perfect when he's older). Baldwin sang a haunting "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods, with the subtle assistance of the Essential Voices. Together, the foursome delivered an earnest "Our Time" from Merrily We Roll Along before Lazar and Noll sang a spellbinding "Move On" from Sunday in the Park with George.

The 82 year old cabaret legend Marilyn Maye made a special appearance at the eleven o'clock spot wrapping her mahogany-hued contralto around "I'm Still Here," the biggest showstopper of the evening. The audience response was so overwhelming, Ms. Maye had to reappear to take a second bow. Afterward, the quartet and chorus sang Jason Robert Brown's new arrangement of the gorgeous "Sunday," which has become something of an obligatory finale for Sondheim celebrations.

Much to the delight of the audience, Sondheim himself made an entrance during the unlisted encore of "Old Friends" from Merrily We Roll Along. When the standing ovation subsided, Sondheim himself had the last word of the evening as he sang the final "Damn few."

Photo Credit: Johanna Weber

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