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By C. Davis Remignanti

LOS ANGELES, 21 NOVEMBER 2010 — Only the worst sort of misanthrope would begrudge a man his 80th birthday celebration. And if the man in question is American theatre legend Stephen Sondheim, it’s not unexpected that that celebration might take the form of a star-studded concert of his music. But when a copy of Sondheim! The Birthday Concert (airing this week nationwide on PBS’s Great Performances) crossed my desk, I admit my first reaction was "What, again? Haven’t I been to this party, with these same people, several times already?" 

Directed by Lonny Price and written by Mr. Price and David Hyde Pierce (who also acts as the Master of Ceremonies), the evening’s offerings may ring familiar — very familiar in some cases — with an audience who might have seen similarly star-studded Sondheim celebrations in the not-terribly-distant past. Many of the same songs, many of the same performers (a few of the same songs performed by the same performers) lead a viewer to make unavoidable comparisons to fêtes past.

Karen Olivo and cast members from West Side Story
Photo: Joseph Sinnott, WNET.ORG 2010

Let me make clear: there is a lot to enjoy in this particular iteration, and I will heartily recommend that fans of Mr. Sondheim’s work set aside time to watch. Okay? Are we good? I’m recommending it. If you don’t want to know any more of my opinions stop reading now and live in bliss.

Because there was more wrong than right in this program. Including a mild feeling of "that was pleasant enough" that doesn’t leave the viewer until nearly an hour into the concert. That’s a long time to wait for the magic to kick in. The proceedings start with an oddly rote and dark performance of "America" by Karen Olivo and cast members from the currently running Broadway revival of West Side Story. "Pleasant-enough" performances by Marin Mazzie, Jason Danieley and Victoria Clark follow and then things hit a wall with a plodding (literally plodding!) and tossed off performance of "Johanna" (Sweeney Todd) by the Metropolitan Opera’s Nathan Gunn, who returns to the stage one song later to perform a zero-chemistry duet with the wonderful Audra McDonald.

The first spark that something special is happening comes next, when John McMartin, from the original cast of Follies gives us a jewel-like, quiet and nuanced performance of "The Road You Didn’t Take." But here we encounter the evening’s biggest flaw. Seven songs into the proceedings and we have heard from Follies three times already (four if you include its appearance in the overture) and there are four more Follies songs still to come. That means a full third of the evening is from that one show. And 1985’s concert version of Follies set the standard for performing that score in non-theatrical format. Most of the Follies songs performed this night pale in comparison to that previous concert gala. Considering the sheer size and scope of Mr. Sondheim’s output, that was some sloppy program planning.

(l.-r.) Michael Cerveris and George Hearn
Photo: Joseph Sinnott, WNET.ORG 2010

But the upward momentum continues with the charming reunions of Johanna Gleason and Chip Zien (Into the Woods) and Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin (Sunday in the Park with George). And then — finally — some magic happens when dueling Sweeney Todds take the stage in the persons of George Hearn (from the original production) and Michael Cerveris (from the scintillating recent revival). Mr. Hearn graciously assumes the role of the Judge in their duet of "Pretty Women," and the viewer at home instantly envies the lucky few who can say they saw this pairing happen live. Despite the song’s dark content and context, their distinct vocal timbres meet, embrace and stroll arm in arm like long-lost friends in a chance encounter. The subsequent "A Little Priest," wherein the two Sweeneys are joined onstage by Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett is fun for the spectacle of watching the two men share the role, but the humor of the lyric is so familiar now as to be, at best, tolerated with a polite smile.

Mr. Sondheim’s contribution to film scores is covered in one shot during the subsequent "Goodbye For Now" (the theme from Reds). An unfortunate choice, to my ear, because every time I hear that theme I find myself humming "I’ll Be Home for Christmas" for the next hour or so.

Ms. LuPone steps forward and announces "I’d like to propose a toast." Is it possible she is going to sing "Ladies who Lunch" in front of Elaine Stritch?

And then, in perhaps the evening’s sweetest and most musical performance, a radiant Laura Benanti presents "So Many People" from Mr. Sondheim’s first commercially written show, Saturday Night. It is one of the highlights of the entire evening.

And it is followed by the evening’s worst crime: the wholesale lifting of an entire sequence from the previously-mentioned concert version of Follies. In 1985, to the tune of "Beautiful Girls" a parade of the evenings biggest stars (among others, Betty Comden! Carol Burnett! Barbara Cook! And Elaine Stritch!) walked out through the orchestra to waves of rapturous applause of the audience members. They sat in delicate chairs and, one-by one, rose to perform. In 2010, to the tune of "Beautiful Girls" a parade of the evenings biggest stars (among others Audra McDonald! Bernadette Peters! Patti LuPone! And Elaine Stritch!) walked out through the orchestra to waves of rapturous applause of the audience members. They sat in delicate chairs and, one-by one, rose to perform. Talk about being served leftovers. It was a stunning bit of creative petty theft. Not to mention that the sequence was done much better the first time around. (While Mr. Hyde Pierce was charming and amusingly laconic as the evening’s host, vocally he is no Arthur Rubin.)

Six diva turns by Broadway’s biggest female stars follow. First up, and almost unbelievably, Ms. LuPone steps forward and announces "I’d like to propose a toast." Is it possible she is going to sing "Ladies who Lunch" in front of Elaine Stritch, who not only originated the song in the Broadway production of Company, but whose rendition of the song has it marked as her own for eternity? The answer is "yes," and a miracle happens. Ms. LuPone takes possession of the song. Her swinging acknowledgment of the song’s bossa nova beat and the sheer power of her musicality make it seem as though we are hearing the song not just re-interpreted, but perfected.

Ms. Mazzie returns with a fine performance of an over-heard song, and Ms. McDonald is given a solo shot where, unburdened from a leaden partner, she shines. Then Donna Murphy gives us "Leave You" (again, Follies) and delivers the evening’s best dramatic performance, which distinction is not meant to impugn her stellar musicality. (Did I see that incorrectly, or did Ms. Stritch sit on her hands as everyone else on stage applauded enthusiastically, and deservedly, at the star turn?)

The luminous Bernadette Peters was up next. Time has stood still for Ms. Peters, who not only looks exactly the same as she did 30 years ago, but is in the best voice of her career. But as she proceeded to chew the bejeebers out of and ruin the lovely "Not a Day Goes By" (Merrily We Roll Along), one was brought back to her transcendent performance of the same song in 1992’s concert Sondheim, A Celebration at Carnegie Hall. Her heartbreaking, long-held final note at that performance was repeated here, but this time it seemed like showboating, as she held it longer than the orchestra cut-off.

Elaine Stritch
Photo: Joseph Sinnott, WNET.ORG 2010

And then finally, La Stritch. (Really, "stritch" should be a verb by now, as in "This song may be beyond you vocally, kid, but if you can stritch it, you’ll be a star!") Given the evening’s final and prime solo spot, the audience is clearly salivating for her to repeat her lightning-in-a-bottle performance of "Broadway Baby" from 1985. Instead they are offered a reasonable substitute, Ms. Stritch singing "I’m Still Here" (yes, Follies) which, despite a swallowed final note, was stritched with every bit of the deadpan, life-weary mugging the gay men in attendance could possibly have hoped for.

So here’s the problem. Because Mr. Sondheim, at 80, is youthful and seemingly hale, this is not likely to be the last concert gala celebrating his music we are to see during his lifetime. So I beg of those who undertake the task in the future: there are hundreds and hundreds of worthy songs from which to choose. Please stop giving us the same anointed and overly-familiar few over and over!

Sondheim! The Birthday Concert will air on PBS television's Great Performances Wednesday, 24 November 2010 at 9 p.m. (check local listings).

C. Davis Remignanti writes on theatre, design and the decorative arts for Culturekiosque. He last reviewed Duncan Sheik's Whisper House at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. 

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