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The Sondheim Celebration

By New York City
Stephen Sondheim(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Stephen Sondheim
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Last night's Sondheim Celebration concert at Avery Fisher Hall was one of those cultural events that make you want to exclaim, "Thank God I live in New York!" Yet this particular concert was made up of recreations of some magnificent performances that originally took place not in NYC but in our nation's capital.

In case you hadn't heard, fully staged productions of six musicals with scores by the genius composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim were presented in repertory at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. this past summer. By and large, all of those shows were deservedly praised, and there was even talk that one or more of them might transfer to Broadway. Sadly, no such transfers happened; but, as a fabulous consolation prize, musical highlights of all six productions were offered last night at Avery Fisher, played by a large pick-up orchestra led by the Sondheim Celebration's conductors and, in almost every case, sung by the people who performed these songs in D.C.

As expected, Brian Stokes Mitchell -- who played the title role in Sweeney Todd -- was not present, presumably because of scheduling conflicts with the Broadway-bound revival of Man of La Mancha in which he's now starring. Two other Celebration participants -- Mandy Patinkin, who did a one-man show as part of the series, and Michael Hayden, who played Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along -- were scheduled to appear last night at Avery Fisher but did not show. Hayden's Merrily numbers were performed by Hugh Panaro, who was Anthony Hope in Sweeney Todd in D.C. and who, happily, just finished playing Shepard in an L.A. Reprise! production of Merrily. The Celebration conductors/musical directors on hand were Jonathan Tunick (Company), Nicholas Archer (A Little Night Music), Rob Berman (Sunday in the Park With George), Larry Blank (Sweeney Todd), Wally Harper (the right-hand man of Barbara Cook, who performed her exemplary Mostly Sondheim concert as part of the Celebration), and Eric Stern (Merrily We Roll Along).

The concert began with a rousing reading of the Merrily overture; the brief "Rich and Happy" section of the piece was cut, undoubtedly because that song wasn't included in the version of Merrily presented in D.C. First up among the singers was Christine Baranski, reviving her wonderful comic shtick as Mrs. Lovett in "The Worst Pies in London" (Sweeney Todd). Next came "Now," "Later," and "Soon" from A Little Night Music, sung individually and respectively by John Dossett, Danny Gurwin, and Sarah Uriarte Berry and followed by the gorgeous trio built upon those songs. (Gurwin's high note on the phrase "For God's sake" was so spine-tingling that the audience applauded in the middle of his solo.) Marcy Harriell sang the hell out of "Another Hundred People" (Company), a thrilling moment that yielded to the tranquil loveliness of "Beautiful" (Sunday in the Park With George) as performed by Linda Stephens and Raúl Esparza.

Melissa Errico and Raúl Esparzain Sunday in the Park With George(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Melissa Errico and Raúl Esparza
in Sunday in the Park With George
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
"It Would Have Been Wonderful" from Night Music was an audience favorite as performed by Dossett and the deliciously hammy Douglas Sills. Judy Kuhn spun vocal gold in "I Wish I Could Forget You" from Passion, Panaro and Emily Skinner sang and acted persuasively in "Growing Up" from Merrily, and then Panaro soared through "Johanna" from Sweeney. Anastasia Barzee made a strong case for the female version of "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily, while Esparza's brilliantly intense rendition of "Franklin Shepard, Inc." from that same show brought the house down. Michael Cerveris and Rebecca Luker offered "Happiness" from Passion and the first half of the program was capped by Alice Ripley's comic mania in "Getting Married Today" from Company, in which she was aided and abetted by Skinner, Matt Bogart, and John Barrowman. Unfortunately, Skinner killed one of the song's best jokes by singing an incorrect lyric in her first line -- "tragedy of life" rather than "pinnacle of life." That seemed to throw her, and some major pitch problems ensued. (This is probably a good place to mention that the concert participants had extremely limited rehearsal time.)

Act II opened, rather surprisingly, with "Tick Tock" from Company -- surprising because (1) this dance number was written by David Shire, though based on Sondheim's themes, and (2) only a very small section of "Tick Tock" was played in the Sondheim Celebration's Company. Still, it's a terrific piece, excitingly orchestrated by Tunick, so it was great to hear it played live. The "Weekend in the Country" ensemble was delivered by the Night Music people mentioned above plus Natascia Diaz as Petra and Randy Graff as Charlotte, along with ringers Bogart, Luker, Panaro, Skinner, and Stephens. Baranski warmly supported Mark Price in his beautiful, heartbreaking rendition of "Not While I'm Around" from Sweeney. Esparza, Panaro, and Miriam Shor had fun with "Old Friends" from Merrily, and then Graff and Berry gave a performance of "Every Day a Little Death" from Night Music that somehow seemed even more moving than it was in the full show in D.C. The best song from the Passion score, "Loving You," was marvelously effective in Kuhn's rendition. Errico sparkled in the title number from Sunday in the Park with an assist from Esparza, and then Luker and Cerveris sang "Farewell Letter" from Passion.

John Barrowman in Company(Photo: Joan Marcus)
John Barrowman in Company
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In Sondheim's biggest hit, "Send in the Clowns" from Night Music, Blair Brown flatted so painfully on a repeated note ("rich," "pair," etc.) in the first section of the song that the audience shifted nervously; but her pitch improved markedly thereafter and she won us over with her committed performance. Cerveris and Philip Goodwin sang about "Fosca" (Passion), Diaz gave a tour-de-force reading of the challenging "Miller's Son" from Night Music, and Errico and Esparza returned to the stage again as Dot and George in "Move On" from Sunday. Barbara Cook's performances of "In Buddy's Eyes" (accompanied only by piano and bass) and "Losing My Mind" (with full orchestra playing someone else's adaptation of Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations) from Follies were so rapturously received that the roof of the concert hall threatened to blow off. Baranski followed with a delightful turn in "By the Sea" from Sweeney. John Barrowman -- who had been held in vocal reserve all evening -- came through thrillingly in the cleanup spot with "Being Alive" from Company. And the awe-inspiring finale featured the full company in the stunning choral anthem "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park With George.

Aside from some relatively minor sound and lighting glitches, the performance was the ultimate in professionalism. I'm sorry to pass along reports that it will not be released commercially on CD or VHS or DVD. Chalk it up as one of those ephemeral but unforgettable nights of musical theater history.


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