Sondheim Unplugged at Feinstein’s/54 Below

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By Jordan Cohen

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stephen Sondheim has become cause for monthly celebration at Feinstein’s/54 Below, and who better to celebrate twelve times a year than the writer of Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Passion, Gypsy, and so many more? Now in its fifth year, Sondheim Unplugged, created and hosted by Phil Geoffrey Bond, celebrated its 49th performance on Sunday night with numbers from some of Sondheim’s biggest and most enduring hits – and one of his, well…less celebrated flops.

 

The flop at hand is Anyone Can Whistle, which began the main portion of the show after a spirited prelude performance of Company’s “Being Alive” by Christopher DeProphetis (and an oh-so-punny introduction by Bond). Written in 1964, Anyone Can Whistle closed on Broadway after 9 previews and 12 performances. As Bond describes it, Whistle seemed doomed from the start: in tryouts, a cast member had a heart attack, and soon after that, a dancer fell off the stage and onto a violinist who died the next week (someone backstage must have whistled! Get it? Ha!) Anyway, Ereni Sevasti performed a rousing version of “There Won’t Be Trumpets” and captured Fay’s impassioned hopes for the town’s salvation. Aaron Ramey then delivered a meditative rendition of “Anyone Can Whistle,” a perfect song for his rich baritone.

 

Switching gears, the hilarious Lucia Spina performed “The Boy From” from The Mad Show, an off-Broadway revue from 1966 that ran for 871 performances. The song, a parody of “The Girl from Ipanema,” allowed Spina to show off her impeccable comedic timing and nimble enunciation: “Tall and tender, like an Apollo … The boy from Tacarembo La Tumbe Del Fuego Santa Malipas Zatatecas La Junta Del Sol Y Cruz” – you get the idea (she even does a little Welsh at the end!).

 

Next was Sweeny Todd, the killer 1979 musical that picked up 8 of the 9 Tony’s it was nominated for in 1979. Apparently, the set caused so many problems during tech rehearsals that they couldn’t get through an entire run without stopping. Len Cariou said that eventually he stopped remembering how the show ended (Cariou’s exact words were a tad more colorful). Aaron Ramey took the stage once again to perform a soulful and precise version of “Johanna.” Following Ramey was the fresh faced Tyler Whitacker, singing “Not While I’m Around,” perfectly suited for his voice. The wonderful Steve Ross then played and sang a hauntingly delicate version of “Pretty Women,” one of the highlights of the night. Ross then transitioned us to Follies with a fun and charming “Ah, Paris,” in stark contrast to the previous number. While “Pretty Women” showed a bit of Ross’s darkness, “Ah, Paris” was pure fun and his vocal agility helped him knock it out of the park.

 

Follies, Sondheim’s ode to a golden musical past and winner of seven 1971 Tony Awards, is set in a decaying theatre scheduled to be demolished. How ironic, as Bond points out, that in order to build the Marquis Theatre, where the 2011 revival of Follies played, five historic theatres were razed. Mary Jane Houdina, who starred in the original production as Young Hattie, took the stage to perform “Broadway Baby.” Houdina’s pipes are strong as ever – she was brassy in both voice and body, shimmying her way through to the end.

 

Christopher DeProphetis then performed his second song of the night, “What Can You Loose,” one of Sondheim’s contributions to the soundtrack of the 1990 film Dick Tracy. Sondheim took home an Oscar for another song on the soundtrack, “Sooner or Later.” DeProphetis’ performance was understated and seductive.

 

Passion, Sondheim’s 1994 4-time Tony winner, was up next. Did you know that Donna Murphy cried in the wings every night during previews because the audience kept laughing during her serious moments? Some even yelled “Die, Fosca, die” from the balcony, but Murphy’s Tony for the role ensured that she had the last laugh. Ereni Savasti, Sarah Rice, and Mike Schwitter sang “Happiness,” “Loving You/Now That I Feel Loved,” and “No One Has Ever Loved Me.” Schwitter built in intensity as the song progressed, leading to a triumphant finish. Rice brought eloquence and grace to her Tosca, delivering a consummately acted performance.

 

Irving Berlin was originally asked to write Gypsy and Bond asked us to really think about that for a second – “Irving Berlin’s Gypsy.” This got quite a reaction. Lucia Spina returned to sing “Smile, Girls” originally cut from the show. She was big and broad, exactly what the song calls for. Sally Mayes closed out the show with an over the top (in a good way!) “Rose’s Turn” that brought down the house. Mayes truly made this star-maker role her own.

 

The milestone 50th performance of Sondheim Unplugged is right around the corner, on December 27th at Feinstein’s/54 Below, and is sure to be an extra special show. Don’t miss it!

 

Sondheim Unplugged

Next performance: Sunday, December 27th at 7pm.

For dates/times and tickets, visit: http://54below.com/artist/sondheim-unplugged/

Or call: (646) 476-3551.

 

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