By Stanford Friedman
Stephen Sondheim is having a moment, what with new productions of Company and Follies having wowed London, and an intriguing revival of Merrily We Roll Along packing them in off-Broadway. Of course, it is hard to find any week in the past 60 years when America’s greatest living lyricist/composer was not having a moment. And that, essentially, is the point of Sondheim Unplugged, a cabaret celebration of the master and his works sung by a diverse ensemble who are accompanied by just piano (from the flawless Joe Goodrich), plus an assist by a slide projector and the encyclopedic knowledge of host Phil Geoffrey Bond.
Bond created this on-going series in 2010, in honor of Sondheim’s 80th birthday. Having run more or less monthly since then, first at the Laurie Beechman and now at the acoustically divine Feinstein’s/54 Below, each evening offers a blend of classic show-stoppers and deep cuts, from a rotating mix of Broadway up-and-comers and actors whose Sondheim credits date back to the 1970’s. In between numbers, Bond provides one-liners, obscure references for the hard core fans, and bits of musical theater history, complete with visual aids.
The latest performance (the 82nd, for those keeping count), on March 31, offered several downright thrilling renditions, and demonstrated how most, though not all, of the Sondheim canon is evergreen. Teri Ralston, who was the original Amy in Company, displayed her majestic breadth with the brassy and demanding “Broadway Baby,” before downshifting to a different gear of lovely weariness in a stirring “Send in the Clowns.” Eric Michael Gillett showed a razor-sharp wit in a couple of fun selections from Frogs, the musical that began life in a swimming pool at Yale in 1974, and briefly ran on Broadway in 2004 with Gillett (and Nathan Lane) in the cast. Sarah Rice (Sweeney Todd’s original Johanna), meanwhile, charmed with “Stay With Me” from Into the Woods.
Jim Brochu’s Sondheim credentials are once-removed. His 2006 one-man show, Zero Hour, chronicled the career of Zero Mostel, including Mostel’s famous turn in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. That 1962 musical is rife with 2019 inappropriateness, nowhere more than in its comic ditty, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” with its suggestive implications that this type of “working girl” can “offer you the sort of help/you never get from a spouse.” Brochu served it up nonetheless; the collective unease of the audience was palpable.
Among the younger performers, Ereni Sevasti stole the show with a killer rendition of “The Miller’s Son,” one of Sondheim’s most piercing ballads (“There are mouths to be kissed/Before mouths to be fed”). Lucia Spina sparkled with “Moments In The Woods,” Erica Spyres hit home with an intense “Not a Day Goes By,” and Sam Simahk eased his way through “With So Little To Be Sure Of” (Anyone Can Whistle). Manu Narayan, who is in the current Roundabout Theatre production of Merrily… dropped by to sing his big number from that show, “Franklin Sheppard, Inc.” It was a dynamic lesson in how a song can find a new sort of energy when brought into an intimate venue and how deeply in character an actor in mid run of a show can find himself, even on his night off.
Sondheim Unplugged – Hosted by series creator Phil Geoffrey Bond.
Featured at March 31 Performance: Eric Michael Gillett, Manu Narayan, Teri Ralston, Sarah Rice, Jim Brochu, Ereni Sevasti, Sam Simahk, Lucia Spina and Erica Spyres. Joe Goodrich, Music Director.
Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 W 54th St. (646) 476-3551, https://54below.com/events/sondheim-unplugged-2/. Upcoming performances: 7pm on Sun, Apr 21, Sun, May 26, Sun, Jun 30, Sun, Sep 15, Sun, Nov 24 and Sun, Dec 8. Running time: 90 minutes.