Sondheim Unplugged

Sondheim Unplugged

Feinstein’s/54 Below, NYC, February 25, 2018

Reviewed by Randolph B. Eigenbrode for Cabaret Scenes

Charlie Levy

There’s something refreshing, in a way, about the long-running series Sondheim Unplugged. The simplicity of the evening, rarely seen in cabaret rooms anymore, harks back to showcases of the ’70s and ’80s when all one needed was a piano, a singer, and a straightforward concept.  This series, the brainchild of Phil Geoffrey Bond, eschews bells and whistles and, instead, highlights the enigmatic work of musical theater’s wunderkind, Stephen Sondheim.

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Bond presided over the evening with a dry and sardonic wit, introducing both the background of the pieces and the performers with a charming bite that teetered between devotion and disdain. The grab bag of a cast featured three classifications: those with firsthand Sondheim affiliations; mainstay cabaret performers; and up-and-comers. Lucia Spina, of the mainstay lot, opened with a brassy “Sooner or Later,” full of sassy gumption, and later followed with “Sunday in the Park with George.” The latter piece came particularly alive after she understandably became tongue-tied in a wordy passage, restarting it three times before finally landing on the correct scansion and text (much to the audience’s delight). No one ever said art (and Sondheim) was easy.

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Most of the evening’s other numbers were clear-cut and succinct. The always-bewitching Marissa Mulder dazzled with an earnest “Losing My Mind.” The always-welcomed Sally Mayes succeeded with a sage-like stab at “Everybody Loves Louis,” navigating the ebb and flow of the piece like a pro. And the always-classy Sarah Rice, Sweeney Todd’s original Johanna, proved she didn’t need a mic for “Greenfinch and Linnet Bird,” her dramatic soprano warbling like a cage-free bird.

True, most of the programming seemed to follow the All Sondheim Vocal Selection arrangements (Volume I, II and III), and that’s to be expected when tackling Mr. S. Just when verging on dull, an anomaly came with a suave and mannered baritone, Alton Fitzgerald White, whose reimagined “Pretty Women,” with its playful time signatures and breezy syncopation, was a much needed departure. (Bravo.) 

The true star of the evening, besides Sondheim himself, was an impish up-and-comer, Charlie Levy (pictured), who put over both “Happiness” (Passion) and “Sunday” (Sunday in the Park with George), both pieces rich with complexity and pathos. He had indeed done his homework, forging a resonant journey to both songs, but it was his negotiation between the theatrical nature inherent in Sondheim’s work and the cabaret connection between artist and audience that was unmatched by the other performers that night. Keep an eye out for that one.

With this showing, Sondheim Unplugged celebrated its 70th edition. If Bond continues with this caliber of talent and finesse, he has another 70 or so editions left to squeeze every last drop out of this creative grapevine.

Randolph B. Eigenbrode

Randolph is the newest addition to the writing staff at Cabaret Scenes. He is a cabaret teacher, previously teaching with legend Erv Raible, and his students have gone on to success in the field with sold-out shows and many awards. He is also a director and that, combined with a knowledge of the art form and techniques that cabaret performing encompasses, makes him love reviewing NYC’s cabaret scene. When not catching the Big Apple’s crazy talent, Randolph loves 1970s variety shows, mall Chinese food, Meryl Streep films and a good cold glass of pinot grigio.