Sondheim Unplugged: Review, pics and video

“Being Alive”and “Losing My Mind” – are there any better Sondheim to sing at the close of a year full of loss, unrequited yearning and obsession? That they are sung by performers who have moved me for years– Telly Leung and Natalie Douglas – makes me happy that Sondheim Unplugged is back.

After shutting down after February because of the pandemic, the long-running monthly concert series has gone virtual.  Or, to put it more positively: For the first time, it is now available around the world.   Filmed at its usual venue, Feinstein’s/54 Below, earlier this month without an audience, the hour-long video will premiere online December 26th,  and remain available on demand through January 9th, 2021. Update; “Sondheim Unplugged” has been extended to January 23.

 

Douglas and Leung are the highlights for me – she also sings “Broadway Baby” from Follies; he also sings “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George. They  and four other top-notch Broadway and cabaret talents — Darius de Haas, T. Oliver Reid, Nicholas Rodriguez, Lucia Spina – interpret a total of 14 songs from six Sondheim musicals and one movie soundtrack he composed. (See set list below.) Series creator and host Phil Geoffrey Bond offers choice anecdotes between the songs.  To illuminate the three songs from Company, Bond tells us that “Being Alive” was the fourth attempt at a finale – then Nicholas Rodriguez sings one of the three rejected finales, “Marry Me a Little.”

After Darius de Haas sings (gorgeously) “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, Bond shares “a little anecdote” about how the Washington critics liked the show during try-outs, but their reviews ignored Sondheim, who was making his Broadway debut as a lyricist. To make him feel better, Leonard Bernstein offered to reapportion the royalties. “’Oh, don’t be silly, Lenny. I don’t care about the money.’ Sondheim has since said ‘the amount of money that remark has cost me over the past 50 years….’”

There is little question this concert will offer a measure of relief to the loyal audience of the series, and delight lovers of Sondheim (Sondheimites? Sondheimaniacs?) who are discovering the series for the first time.

As for me: It’s not quite what I had expected.  That seems in part by design and in part by circumstance, the reason tied up with two celebrations of Stephen Sondheim’s life a decade apart.

Sondheim Unplugged began in 2010 during “the hoopla” surrounding the composer’s 80thbirthday,  as Bond explains in the new show. He had sat in the audience of one of the big birthday concerts in New York, surrounded by tuxedos and gowns, listening to a glorious orchestra. “We all know how thrilling it is to hear some of those overtures with all of that instrumentation, but I thought: Wouldn’t it be interesting if we pared everything down and just heard these songs with the piano, and focused on the brilliance of the melodies and the lyrics?”

I’m not sure I buy the idea that an orchestra dims Sondheim’s brilliance,  but Bond’s bare-bones concert idea proved popular enough that Sondheim Unplugged was produced every month in New York from that summer on….until last February.

 

 

As it happens, the show’s return is occurring  some eight months after the hoopla surrounding Sondheim’s 90th birthday,  marked most notably by a star-studded virtual  concert organized by Raúl Esparza entitled Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Celebration. That two-hour concert, which premiered on April 26th as a fundraiser for Artists Striving to End Poverty, remains online, for free.

Now,  I’m of the school that you can never get enough Sondheim. But eight of Bond’s 14 song selections in the new Sondheim Unplugged concert were also in the April concert – some of Sondheim’s most familiar hits. It’s both a safe bet and a risky choice. What I mean is that — to take the most obvious but not the only example – the performer assigned  “Ladies Who Lunch” in Sondheim Unplugged has to contend not only with the memory of Elaine Stritch, but also now with the more recent conquering triumvirate of Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald.

Both the April and the December concerts are pre-recorded videos, which gives an ironic spin to the series’ title; after all, you have to be plugged in, or you can’t watch it.  The concert is the third production in a streaming series the cabaret has launched that it’s calling 54 Below Premieres, and they boast of the quality of the video — “cinematic, four-camera HD….”  But while the birthday concert video is basically Zoom quality, the performers are looking straight at their audience – us – while there is almost no eye contact in Sondheim Unplugged.  Maybe this is a little thing; a quibble; but it distracted me. Bond seems most of the time to be looking off to the side as if reading from a teleprompter, but it’s more disconcerting that the performers’ gaze never seems to meet our own; even in close-up, they have this far away look.  Maybe they were thrown off by the lack of an audience, or maybe the producer is going for a hiply dramatic vibe. But that is not how the first in the 54 Below Premiere videos were shot, The Broadway Princess Holiday Party, (admittedly not hip or Sondheim.) It is not what I expect from a cabaret show.

As it happens, my go-to entertainment every New Year’s Eve is Natalie Douglas’ early show at the Duplex, where she not only looks at us directly, but she cracks wise and witty during the set. That’s not the format of Sondheim Unplugged, and I suppose Bond’s stories generally make up for the apparent lack of interest in nurturing a sense of rapport between the performers and the audience.

 


Sondheim Unplugged is online at Feinstein’s/54 Below from December 26 to January 23
Tickets and details

Song list – All music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim with one exception, noted

“Being Alive” sung by Telly Leung

from Company

“The Ladies Who Lunch” sung by Lucia Spina

from Company

“Marry Me a Little”  sung by Nicholas Rodriguez

from Company

  “Something’s Coming”  sung by Darius de Haas

Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, from West Side Story

 “Sooner or Later” sung by  Lucia Spina

from Dick Tracy

 “What Can You Lose?” sung by Nicholas Rodriguez

from Dick Tracy

 “Losing My Mind” sung   by Natalie Douglas

from Follies

 “Could I Leave You”  sung by Lucia Spina

from Follies

 “Broadway Baby” sung by Natalie Douglas

from Follies

  “Anyone Can Whistle” sung by T. Oliver Reid

from Anyone Can Whistle

  “Good Thing Going” sung by T. Oliver Reid

from Merrily We Roll Along

 “Not a Day Goes By” sung by Darius de Haas

from Merrily We Roll Along

 “Finishing the Hat”  sung by Telly Leung

from Sunday in the Park with George  

“Move On”  sung by Lucia Spina & Nicholas Rodriguez

from Sunday in the Park with George

Author: New York Theaterh

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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