Melissa Errico: Sondheim in St. Louis

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Melissa Errico

Sondheim in St. Louis

The Blue Strawberry, St. Louis, MO, April 27, 2024

Reviewed by Chuck Lavazzi

Melissa Errico
Photo: David Kenas

“I happen to like New York,” wrote Cole Porter in 1930. “I like the sight and the sound and even the stink of it/I happen to like New York.” The late musical-theater legend Stephen Sondheim (a great admirer of Porter) apparently agreed. He owned a home in Connecticut, but he essentially lived his entire life within a 20-block radius of his New York City home.

At The Blue Strawberry on April 26 and 27 Melissa Errico (another musical-theater legend) peppered her new showcase of Sondheim songs with fascinating biographical bits. Accompanied by the equally legendary Tedd Firth (her music director and pianist), she gave the audience a heaping helping of Sondheim, with (by my count) 18 songs that spanned most of the songwriter’s long and productive career. They included a nicely balanced set of tunes from Errico and Firth’s latest CD Sondheim in the City, which was released this past February.

The evening opened with the earliest all-Sondheim song in the set: the rousing “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle (1964). It was a perfect way to introduce us to Errico’s big, expressive voice. Her dynamic range and vocal control were impressive, and they allowed her to shift from a purr to a roar as needed. Her sparkling blue dress—chosen to honor her first appearance at The Blue Strawberry—was the ideal visual equivalent to her effervescent stage persona.

Her long-time collaborator Firth supported her every inch of the way with imaginative arrangements that encompassed a wide range of styles from classical to jazz, all delivered with the impressive virtuosity I have come to expect from him over the years.

Next was a quietly confident version of “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd (1979). In its original context, the song is about the promises Mrs. Lovett and the slow-witted Toby make to each other that they don’t fully understand and won’t be able to keep. In Errico’s hands, it became a less ambiguous and more openly moving declaration of familial love. Either way, it’s all there in the music and lyrics; one just needed to shift perspective a bit.

The contrast of moods set the stage admirably for a show that was all about Sondheim’s masterful use of ambiguity and contradiction. “Small World” (from Gypsy, 1959, music by Jule Styne) in this context was all about Rose’s affection for and manipulation of the long-suffering Herbie, and the following number, “Loving You” (from Passion, 1994), showed how easily romantic love can coexist with creepy obsession. Errico’s interpretation leaned towards the “romantic love” end of the spectrum, but the subtext of creepiness was there as well. Firth’s arrangement included a volcanically romantic solo break (Rachmaninoff would have approved of it) that could also have been taken either way. It was, again, a matter of perspective.

And so it went for about 90 minutes with anecdotes drawn from both Errico’s and Sondheim’s lives and segued neatly from one great song to the next. In effect it was a musical biography of both Errico and Sondheim as well as an entertaining night of cabaret guaranteed to gladden the hearts of musical-theater lovers in general and Sondheim fanatics (“Sondheimaniacs”?) in particular. That’s a group in which I would unapologetically include myself.

That said, the between-song patter, well-chosen and informative as it was, sometimes became a bit discursive. In a few cases, it all became a bit of “inside baseball,” dwelling at length on technical aspects of lyric construction and performance practice that would have been a better fit for a master class. I found this stuff fascinating, mind you, but I’m not sure that this was a view held by most of those in attendance.

Still, that’s a minor quibble, which is why it’s here at the end of the review. Errico and Firth are masters of their craft just as Sondheim was of his. The combination was a match made in musical-theater heaven. This might have been their first appearance on a local cabaret stage, but I hope many more will follow.

Meanwhile, you can listen to most of Errico’s extensive discography on Spotify and check out her videos (including her enlightening Sixty-Second Sondheim series) on YouTube. Information about upcoming shows at The Blue Strawberry can be found on its website.

Chuck Lavazzi

Chuck Lavazzi is the producer for the arts calendars and senior performing arts critic at 88.1 KDHX, the host of The Cabaret Project’s monthly open mic night, and entirely to blame for the Stage Left blog at stageleft-stlouis.blogspot.com. He’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and the St. Louis Theater Circle. Chuck has been an actor, sound designer, and occasional director since roughly the Bronze Age. He has presented his cabaret show Just a Song at Twilight: the Golden Age of Vaudeville, at the Missouri History Museum and the Kranzberg Center.

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