You know it's going to be a thrilling night when the lights dim, the curtain rises, and the nearly 20-member orchestra strikes up the first chords of the overture to Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. But this is no ordinary orchestra. This is the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, featuring the great Wynton Marsalis, all the way in the back, on trumpet. And this is not a production of Merrily We Roll Along. These thrilling notes are opening a brand-new show, called A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair.
Directed by John Doyle (and conceived by Doyle, Peter Gethers, and Jack Viertel), this Sondheim revue for four singers and four dancers might be the most ambitious of all the Sondheim revues. With 30 songs brilliantly reimagined for a jazz band, A Bed and a Chair, a New York City Center Encores! special event, follows four people as they struggle to find love in the big city while being haunted, literally, by their past failures in the forms of their younger selves.
Yes, it is reminiscent of Sondheim's brilliant musical Follies, where four people are also haunted by the ghosts of their younger selves. Yet unlike Buddy, Sally, Ben, and Phyllis, the characters here, simply called "Young Woman," "Young Man," "Older Woman," and "Older Man," are not cynical, bitter creatures. They're just sad. Disenchanted. Ready for the next step. And as played and sung by Cyrille Aimée, Jeremy Jordan, Norm Lewis, and Bernadette Peters, respectively, these four people live and breathe deeper than the show's creators could have possibly imagined.
No, the story line isn't exactly clear, but that's OK. Doyle's fantasia is performed well enough – exceedingly well, in fact – that you don't really need a story to follow. It's just glorious to hear that brass section strike up the blaring notes of "Broadway Baby," with Peters, who appeared in the 2011 Broadway revival of Follies, taking the lead and reinventing a song that has been in her repertoire for years. When Jordan wraps his tongue around "Giants in the Sky" from Into the Woods? Stunning. How about Norm Lewis on "Loving You," from Passion? Heartbreaking. And it is certainly thrilling to hear Aimée, a French cabaret chanteuse making a most impressive acting debut, scatting during Company's "You Could Drive A Person Crazy."
These are just some of the thrills of A Bed and a Chair, the title of which is derived from a lyric in "Broadway Baby." That list of thrills includes choreography by Parker Esse danced by Broadway veterans Elizabeth Parkinson, Meg Gillentine, Grasan Kingsberry, and Tyler Hanes, who take on the roles of the "Shadows" of our four protagonists. As they move their way through "That Old Piano Roll" from Follies and "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music, you realize how sexy dance can be.
For the true aficionados, there are a few hilarious in-jokes, namely involving Peters, who played the Witch in the original company of Into the Woods, taking on the vocal ahhhs of Rapunzel as Lewis and Jordan perform "Agony." This comes in the midst of the show's high point, a medley of that song, "The Ladies Who Lunch," "Can That Boy Foxtrot!," and "Uptown/Downtown." To hear these luscious songs put together in such a fashion, with estimable performers selling the material so well, is a treat we're too lucky to have been given.