Amazing Journey

The Washington Post
Kennedy Center's Sondheim Treat to N.Y.

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, October 23, 2002; Page C01

Now that's what they mean by going out on a high note. The Kennedy Center filled Avery Fisher Hall on Monday night with the sound of Sondheim, gathering many of the performers from last summer's Sondheim Celebration in Washington for an enthralling three-hour farewell concert.

By turns tender, touching and thrilling, the sold-out evening featured 30 songs and orchestral pieces from the festival's six core musicals, which played in rotation throughout the summer in the Eisenhower Theater. The concert bonus was two numbers performed by the peerless Barbara Cook -- who also had entertained at the Kennedy Center as part of the celebration -- from a seventh Stephen Sondheim musical, "Follies."

"Every self-respecting summer camp has a reunion," Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser said in brief welcoming remarks. "And what better place for Camp Sondheim to hold its reunion than in New York City?"

What better place, indeed. The $10 million Sondheim Celebration was the most expensive theater project in the history of the Kennedy Center; where Sondheim is concerned, nothing of the like has ever been attempted in New York. Still, for Kennedy Center officials to come to the composer's home town to show New York how they did it took more than a little nerve. One could hardly escape the feeling, sitting in the august concert hall in the heart of Lincoln Center, that a statement was being made, a request for some respect was being issued.

The audience's generous applause seemed to send back the message: Request granted. The warmth generated onstage -- from the early moment when Christine Baranski tied on an apron to sing "The Worst Pies in London" from "Sweeney Todd" to the curtain call, which brought a beaming Sondheim front and center -- was matched by the consistently enthusiastic reception from the crowd.

The concert, staged by Eric Schaeffer, who was also the celebration's artistic director, was a study in austerity, the 33-piece orchestra being the one luxurious concession. Without introduction, actors took their places at the banks of microphones and launched into song. The numbers progressed in virtually random order, except for the fairly predictable finales: the tongue-twisting "Not Getting Married Today" from "Company" closing the first act, and the moving "Sunday" from "Sunday in the Park With George," performed by all 26 actors, capping the second.

It did not come off without a hitch: Sound problems were noticeable in several numbers, most egregiously during John Barrowman's splendid rendition of the incandescent "Being Alive," and -- yikes! -- lyrics were flubbed in at least one song. (Dropping a line of Sondheim's is like letting Baccarat crystal slip through your fingers.) Even so, the evening proved to be a terrific showcase, and not merely for the Kennedy Center. Though a few old hands were cast in major roles, the celebration had so clearly tilted in favor of budding performers that the festival could have been subtitled "Sondheim: The Next Generation."

Most of those younger musical stars were on hand Monday; of the principals of the six shows, only "Sweeney Todd's" Brian Stokes Mitchell, in Washington with "Man of La Mancha," and "Merrily We Roll Along's" Michael Hayden could not make it. (Mitchell's absence was teasingly noted by Baranski, who, during "By the Sea," elbowed the empty space in which the actor should have been standing.)

Such sterling performers as Michael Cerveris, Rebecca Luker, Raul Esparza, Judy Kuhn, Randy Graff, Melissa Errico and Nastacia Diaz all had stirring moments, reminders of the power they had exhibited in Washington. Esparza's twitchy rendition of "Franklin Shepard Inc." from "Merrily" cut through the hall like a buzz saw. Kuhn's buttery vocals were a hypnotizing match for "I Wish I Could Forget You" and "Loving You" from "Passion." And Graff's "Every Day a Little Death" from "A Little Night Music" was as wry in October as it had been in August.
Wisely, Schaeffer did not cut the dialogue interspersed in some of the numbers, which helped give them context and drive.

Some songs clearly benefited from the crisper acoustics in the hall, and some from deeper consideration by the singers. Cerveris, whose neurotically tormented Giorgio in "Passion" redefined the role, imbued the solo number "Fosca" with an even more haunting intensity than he had at the Eisenhower. Errico's delivery of the opening song from "Sunday in the Park With George" now had a more sophisticated comic essence, and the emotional intimacy of Diaz's "The Miller's Son" seemed to have been enhanced in the concert staging.

Two duets from "Sunday in the Park" soared -- "Beautiful" (with Esparza and Linda Stephens) and "Move On" (Esparza and Errico) -- and one trio, "Now/Later/Soon" from "Night Music," seemed even more lush than before in the full-throttle sound generated by John Dossett, Danny Gurwin and Sarah Uriarte Berry.

All this and Cook, too. She wrapped her unfaltering soprano around two of Sondheim's most fetching and wrenching ballads, "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind," numbers she sang in a legendary concert version of "Follies" in 1985 at Carnegie Hall. The effect this time was still electric: The only louder roar all night was for Sondheim himself.

Which was only right. At evening's end, when the composer came out to acknowledge a crowd on its feet, he was greeted by the cast, stretched out along the lip of the stage. Instinctively, the actors reached out to him and he began shaking hands. The image was lovely and fitting: A curtain call had become a receiving line.

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