KT Sullivan & Jeff Harnar: A Sondheim Montage

| April 2, 2016

KT Sullivan & Jeff Harnar

A Sondheim Montage

The Gaslight Theater, St. Louis, MO, March 11, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Callahan for Cabaret Scenes

sullivan-and-harnar-500It was just over thirteen years ago that I was first enchanted by KT Sullivan in cabaret at the Grandel. Now she’s back in a splendid evening at the Gaslight, a featured star in that theater’s cabaret festival. This time she brings with her a most talented and charming partner, Jeff Harnar, in an evening of pure Stephen Sondheim.

Sullivan has long been a luminary in the world of cabaret, but she also has an impressive resume in musical theater—on Broadway and elsewhere. The lady retains her glamour and wit, and vocally, though her vibrato is a tiny bit broader, she’s certainly still in top form. She can be warm and lush or bright and exciting. She retains a purity of tone even when she sings in what seems to be a whisper (though it’s perfectly audible). Her early training in opera has given her the technical skills that make her performance seem so effortless, but this—cabaret—is definitely her mètier. She knows these songs, she loves them, and she makes that love contagious.

Harnar is a trim, dapper, personable youngish man. His baritone voice is as smooth as supple chamois leather. He makes a near-ideal partner for Sullivan as they lead us through a vast tapestry of Sondheim songs.

The tiny Gaslight Theater provides a wonderful intimacy. Every syllable, every tiny graceful turn of Sondheim’s lyrics is clearly heard and understood; this is so important with Sondheim, who showers us with wit and intellect and vocabulary, surprising little internal rhymes, and subtle, almost subliminal references. “Every day a little death,” from A Little Night Music is perhaps only an unconscious reference to the French term for “orgasm”: “la petite mort.”

Sullivan and Harnar treat us to some forty songs from fifteen different “pure Sondheim” shows—that is, shows in which he created both music and lyrics. These range from the vastly popular A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Into the Woods, Company, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park With George, Sweeney Todd and Follies to far more obscure works. Harnar does lovely work with “Live Alone and Like It” and “More” from the movie Dick Tracy, and he introduces us to the gorgeous “Sand,” where love is ever-shifting. It’s from the never-produced 1992 show Singing Out Loud.

The duo give a lively vaudeville sense to “On My Left” and “Bounce” from Road Show, which never made it to Broadway. There’s a beautiful “Take Me to the World” from the 1966 TV film, Evening Primrose (based on the John Collier short-story). “The Girls of Summer” is a true gem, though it was only incidental music in a straight play. We even get “So Many People” from 1954’s Saturday Night, which never opened because it’s lead producer died. And as a final encore we get “How Do I Know?” which Sondheim wrote when he was fifteen!

Harnar shows himself a master of the lightning-fast patter song, and Sullivan is a grand delight in a number from Follies portraying some Bronxy chorus girls; she’s almost a ventriloquist to herself. Together they finish “Who Wants to Live in New York” (from Merrily We Roll Along) by blending their voices into a most convincing train whistle. And, tipsily sipping cocktails, they make “The Ladies Who Lunch” both funny and intensely poignant.

Throughout the evening, Sullivan uses her beautiful large features—and her perceptive phrasing—to reveal the real drama in many songs. “Send in the Clowns” was gorgeous.

Harnar gives us a skillful “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and “Children Will Listen” (from Into the Woods). With these I felt that a touch more rubato—placing certain words just a fraction off the beat as is commonly done—would have given more menace.

Several songs are sung by the not-expected gender. For example, Harnar sings Little Red’s “I Know Things Now” from Into the Woods and “Getting Married Today” from Company, and Sullivan sings “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd. I know that everything is fair game in today’s gender-fluid world, but let’s face it: a nervous groom is simply different from the cliché nervous bride, and male lustful musings are peculiarly male.

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Category: Cabaret Reviews, Regional, St. Louis, St. Louis Cabaret Reviews

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Emily West

But West is a wonderfully charismatic singer with an ingratiating sense of self-aware humor.