REVIEW: Lyrics and Lyricists, Theresa L Kaufmann Concert Hall ✭✭✭

L-R: Kate Baldwin, Jason Danieley, Liz Callaway, Jeremy Jordan, James Clow, Heidi Blickenstaff. Photo credit: Courtesy 92Y
L-R: Kate Baldwin, Jason Danieley, Liz Callaway, Jeremy Jordan, James Clow, Heidi Blickenstaff. Photo credit: Courtesy 92Y

Lyrics and Lyricists
Theresa L Kaufmann Concert Hall
92nd Street Y (Off Broadway)
12 January 2015
3 Stars

What a great idea for a concert: six performers, a narrator and a small orchestra looking at the product of the fruitful collaboration between Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim, which started in earnest with Company and ended in the tragedy that was the disastrously received premiere production of Merrily We Roll Along. And what a particularly excellent idea to use David Loud, who was in that original 1981 company of Merrily We a Roll Along, as the narrator.

Loud also serves as Artistic Director of this concert, part of the 45th Lyrics & Lyricists series, one of the pre-eminent American Songbook Concert series in the country, as well as taking on the hats for music director and writer of the linking material.

Loud is a natural for this sort of event. He delivers the material wryly and to good comic effect, is not over-ingratiating, and brings refreshing candour and intelligence to the stories behind the musical collaboration.

If the purpose of the series is to highlight lyrics and lyricists, the Sondheim/Prince combination certainly provides a rich vein of material to draw from. The six musicals they collaborated upon as director and lyricist/composer cover a huge range in terms of style and effect and there are many numbers in each show which emphasise Sondheim’s lyrical skills.

Somewhat curiously, then, the selections here are oddly predictable and don’t really provide a true insight into the miraculous skill of Sondheim’s pen across these six musicals. He doesn’t really write bad lyrics, but there are certainly songs where the lyrics are smarter, cleverer and more adept than the music. If you were looking to highlight lyric writing skills, I doubt your first choice would be Being Alive from Company, or Beautiful Girls from Follies, or Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music, Poems or Pretty Lady from Pacific Overtures, Johanna from Sweeney Todd or The Hills of Tomorrow or Our Time from Merrily We a Roll Along.

It’s not that these are not great songs – they mostly are – but, for the most part, each score has songs with more sparkling, clever or witty lyrics.

Presumably, the point is that the concert is meant to be a crowd-pleaser and so familiar tunes are desirable. No doubt. But there are plenty of great tunes that accompany great lyrics in these six shows and which could/should have been chosen in preference. Just as one example, both Someone In A Tree and Please Hello boast much better lyrics than Poems or Pretty Lady from Pacific Overtures.

To an extent, though, the selection of songs may have been limited by the performers who would deliver the material. That said, this is New York and one would have thought that there was an endless pool of real talent from which to draw.

There were no quality issues with the female performers: Liz Calloway, Kate Baldwin and Heidi Blickenstaff. Each was superb.

Calloway was magical in her delivery of Not Getting Married Today, her articulation and tuning absolutely correct as she hurtled through Sondheim’s hoops. This may well be the best I have ever heard this song sung. She brought real feeling to Old Friends and guts and gusto to Now You Know. Her Send In the Clowns was artfully simple.

Probably the best singing of the afternoon came from Kate Baldwin who, after a deathly precise and archly comic Bless This Day, gave a luscious, sultry, solo jazz version of You Could Drive A Person Crazy which, well, drove the audience into a crazy frenzy of appreciation. She followed that with a sexy and droll Could I Leave You?; breathlessly good. She drew the short straw with Hills of Tomorrow, but her skill and sublime charm gave fresh life to that neglected number.

Completing the trio of vocal femme fatales, Heidi Blickenstaff opened her contribution with an energetic, vocally terrific, delivery of the tongue twister Another Hundred People. Although she sang it well enough, Blickenstaff is just too young to do true justice to the pain inherent in the lyrics of Losing My Mind but she proved to be a terrific and unique Mrs Lovett for the great finale to Act One of Sweeney Todd, A Little Priest. She did excellent work in Not A Day Goes By, especially in the version that formed part of the finale.

These fabulous women also contributed significantly to ensemble numbers including A Weekend In The Country, Remember, Our Time, The Advantages of Floating In The Sea and The Ballad of Sweeney Todd. Brava to each of them.

The men were not so luminous.

Best of them was James Clow, a tall man with presence and a proper bass-baritone range. Inexplicably, he did not get his own solo, but he was an excellent Todd in A Little Priest and should have been allowed to sing Sorry-Grateful alone. He also was the best vocalist in Pretty Lady. It’s a pity he did not get to really show off his vocal ability.

Both Jeremy Jordan and Jason Danielly seemed totally out of their depth in the Sondheim repertoire.

Danielly’s voice is not secure enough in the middle and tends to wooly sharpness at the top; he seems utterly disconnected with the lyrics. The opening number here, his rendition of Good Thing Going nearly stopped the show dead before it began and got the good audience going out of the door…Nothing that he did that followed was any real improvement either. Pristine hair does not a gifted singer make.

Jordan, sporting a beard which made him look like he got off at Flatbush Avenue just in time for the Sabbath and an aura of arrogance that was entirely misplaced, smiled his way through song after song without finding either the meaning in the words or the passion in the tunes. Mystifying. Jordan can be quite impressive in the right vehicle – but, clearly, Sondheim is not the right vehicle. His Being Alive was dead, his God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Blues answered its own question and his duet with Danielly, Poems, was absolutely awful. And don’t remind me if their accents in Pretty Lady. Good grief…

There was a radiant finale however – which saw all six performers working hard to blend together to accomplish something new. A sextet based on a mash-up of Not A Day Goes By, Send In The Clowns, Could I Leave You, Pretty Lady, Being Alive and Sorry Grateful: six performers and six songs from six shows. The Sondheim 666: it worked beautifully.

This was an enjoyable afternoon of great Sondheim material. Better casting of the men would have reaped greater dividends, as would have better selections of songs. But for $25, with an orchestra and some fabulous women singing their hearts out, it was an absolute bargain. And, actually, the price was justified simply by hearing Loud read out the letter Richard Rodgers wrote to Prince and Sondheim following the debut of Company.

This was a concert of informed insight and some stellar performances. If only the men had not let down the side.

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