Sara Zahn: Both Sides of Bernstein

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Sara Zahn

Both Sides of Bernstein

(Harbinger Records)

October 16, 2019

Reviewed by John Hoglund for Cabaret Scenes

Few cabaret performers have enjoyed the success that Sara Zahn had when she made big waves on the local cabaret scene in the early 1990s. Once an in-demand studio singer, she has also penned numerous songs for movies and television over the years.

She teamed with director Barry Kleinbort after some gigs at Don’t Tell Mama and other small clubs with highly touted tribute shows to Leonard Bernstein, Charles Strouse, and Carolyn Leigh.

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This new album covers the multi-award-winning Bernstein homage which went on to become one of cabaret’s most ambitious and creative showcases in its day. The acclaim from the press was unanimous, with some critics running out of adjectives praising the dynamic show, its structure, and the singer’s interpretive abilities on erudite songs. This CD is culled from two live performances of Both Sides of Bernstein–the Music of Leonard Bernstein performed at Philadelphia’s Barrymore Room in 1994. It is overdue but well worth the wait. 

Zahn has always been a passionate vocalist with a warm, expressive mezzo that can dig deeply into complex phrasings with a precision that might challenge some singers. For Zahn, it is all a piece of cake.

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Without fanfare and whistles, she pulls the listener in with her honeyed delivery on peerless gems from West Side Story, On the Town, Peter Pan, The Madwoman of Central Park West, Candide, The Skin of Our Teeth, Trouble in Tahiti, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and Wonderful Town. In doing so, she sets the bar high for theme shows and reminds us of what the art of cabaret is all about when it’s handled with such commitment. The album, like the show, makes use of several lush medleys. In lesser hands, so many medleys might be overbearing or prove too risky. Here, they are not just casually spun together; they are handled with ease and they flow with an evenness that tells their story with conviction.

Kicking it off with a perky and seductive “Cool” from West Side Story, Zahn teases the listener for what is to come. This is followed by “My New Friends” from The Madwoman of Central Park West, a rarity that is a treat. A delicious New York Medley (which might also be have been called a Comden and Green medley) follows bringing in “New York, New York” (On the Town) with “Christopher Street” (Wonderful Town), “Conquering the City” (Wonderful Town) and “Lonely Town” (On the Town). The whole mix, while deceivingly complicated, is served to perfection by Zahn. This is followed by a House Medley that fuses “My House” (Peter Pan), “Little White House” (Trouble in Tahiti), and “Take Care of This House” (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue). Two medleys back to back might intimidate any singer (as previously noted).

But the arrangement is so refined that Zahn handles it all with ease and delivers it with gusto. The results are a highlight from one of the most high-octane shows to hit a cabaret stage in decades (in spite of the wait for this recording). Zahn is a storyteller non nonpareil who is in a league with Barbara Cook when it comes to phrasing and letting the story flow.  

The disc is filled with highlights including another titan medley called Love Medley which joins “Ringaroundarosy” from Candide with “A Little Bit in Love” from Wonderful Town, “My Love” (Candide), “Another Love” (On the  Town), “It’s Love” (Wonderful Town) and “Lud’s Wedding” (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue). The Garden Medley joins two beauties: “There is a Garden” (Trouble in Tahiti) with “Make Our Garden Grow” (Candide) and the results are opulent. Such versatility on complex arrangements rivet the listener in a way that justifies the many accolades this show received when it first debuted. In the end, this CD is a must for Broadway and cabaret collectors who respect the mercurial brilliance of Bernstein in a glorious tribute. Zahn and her team offer a belated but quality album that is as classic as its subject (Bernstein died in 1990).

Director Barry Kleinbort outdid himself on this project. His hands-on collaborations are evident throughout, and he deserves credit for molding the pieces together along with Zahn. Both are credited with the musical arrangements.

Not enough can be said about the musical contributions of the late Rod Derefinko as music director on this recording. The CD is dedicated to him. Sometimes powerful and lush, but always commanding, he was also a master of subtlety at its best as on an understated “Spring Will Come Again” from The Skin of Our Teeth combined with “Chichester Psalms”/”Psalm 23” (Comden and Green)—a wistful ballad that is haunting.

John Hoglund

For over 30 years, John Hoglund has been a respected entertainment writer covering cabaret, jazz, theater and recordings. His writings have appeared in numerous outlets including the Bistro Bits column for Back Stage. John moderated seminars and forums for the International Cabaret Conference At Yale. He produced many celebrity fundraisers in NYC including one of the first benefits after 9/11: “HeartSong:The Heroes' Concert” at The Bottom Line featuring 36 major stars. He co-produced “HeartSong2: The Heroes' Concert” for Katrina victims at Symphony Space and “Miracle On 35th Street” with a star-studded lineup. Other fund raising efforts include the first benefits for Broadway Cares and God's Love, We Deliver. John served on the Board of Directors of MAC for 12 years. He is well known for championing new and rising talents.