John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey Sing Sondheim at the Café Carlyle
As the Broadway composer approaches his 90th birthday, a cabaret duo pays tribute.
The composer Stephen Sondheim turns 90 next March, and that anniversary is being marked by an avalanche of tribute concerts and revivals. Without a doubt, my favorite thus far is John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey's residency at the Café Carlyle, which this year is an all-Sondheim show. Few activities feel more ideal for a New York November than hearing these songs performed at the Carlyle by two of the best cabaret artists in the business.
Pizzarelli and Molaskey have been married for 21 years, and have been performing together at the Carlyle for the last 13. Their union represents a grand alliance of jazz and Broadway (Pizzarelli is the son of legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, and Molaskey has appeared on Broadway in Parade and Sunday in the Park With George). Like NATO, it's an association that can feel outdated in 2019 — but through their show, Pizzarelli and Molaskey convince us that it is the indispensable symbiosis of American music.
Appropriately, they open the show with "The Little Things You Do Together" from Company, a song about the little "joys" of marriage. Their delivery is drier than any martini in the house, and it sets the tone for a show that is both funny and musically impressive.
Pizzarelli switches between two guitars throughout the show, and whichever one he happens to be holding feels like an extension of his body. He scats along with his dexterous plucking and seems to sail before a wind of notes in "Buddy's Blues" from Follies. We chill out to his entrancing rendition of "Sorry-Grateful" from Company. And surprisingly, he manages to pull off a jazzy arrangement of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," which Molaskey claims credit for inspiring: "I wanted to hear Sweeney Todd as played by Wes Montgomery."
I suspect Molaskey is the hand behind the clever pairings of songs throughout this show: As Pizzarelli sings "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" from Follies, Molaskey cuts in with "All I Need Is the Girl" from Gypsy (Sondheim wrote the lyrics, but the music is by Jule Styne). Both thematically and musically, "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods blends seamlessly with "Children and Art" from Sunday in the Park With George. Molaskey sounds particularly lovely on this number, warm sincerity radiating from her voice. The mash-up of "Something Just Broke" from Assassins with "Now You Know" from Merrily We Roll Along feels both alarming and reassuring in 2019 — perhaps we will walk away from the Trump years having grown a little as a country (one hopes).
In the show's understated high point, Molaskey delivers a gorgeous rendition of "Remember?" from A Little Night Music, which fades into Pizzarelli's unforgettable twist on "The Road You Didn't Take" from Follies. Approaching the number sweetly and softly, like a lullaby, Pizzarelli strums his guitar and sings,
One has regrets
Which one forgets
And as the years go on
The road you didn't take
Hardly comes to mind
That question mark appears like a karambit, which Pizzarelli gently twists into our stomachs. Shorn of any bluster or self-pity, the song is more devastating than I've ever heard it.
Konrad Paszkudzki accompanies on piano, his fingers flying across the ivories during several breathtaking solos. Mike Karn plays bass, providing a steady backbone for this percussion-free show and grounding this selection of showtunes in the jazz sound that has had so much influence on Sondheim and his Broadway compatriots.
Not counting the encore (a rollicking mash-up of "Getting Married Today" and Jon Hendricks's "Cloudburst"), Pizzarelli and Molaskey close the show with "Old Friends" from Merrily. It's a fitting end for an act that has become a mainstay of the Café Carlyle over the last decade. It's also a reminder that while musical fads come and go, the marriage of jazz and Broadway is one built to last.