By ROB LESTER**** Monday, February 12 brings another chance to see a remarkable, class, polished, very theatrical cabaret show that is cause for celebration for multiple reasons. For me, any opportunity to gorge on the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim with top interpreters is the caviar of cabaret. Let sports enthusiasts have their Super Bowl — I’m super-impressed and bowled over by primo players in the field of music. Yup, I’ll take the metaphorical touchdowns scored by the all-star players KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar as singers and Jon Weber as pianist/music director and Sondra Lee directing this swanky Sondheim soiree at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, where I recently was wowed by another Lee-led triumph sung by Marissa Mulder. She clearly knows how to bring performers of high rank to even higher levels of artistry, getting them to mesmerizingly make their music into magic. In the case of both shows, I have never seen the already uber-accomplished artists more focused or impactful. (Marissa’s show is not yet scheduled for a return engagement, though she tells me that is planned.)
Sullivan and Harnar have many feathers in their respective and respectable caps (Does anyone still wear a cap?) from their solo and duo shows (with each other and from times they philandered musically to unite with other partners). They’ve now done two Sondheim shows and their current offering blends the two. “Blend” may be the operative word as some of the gap-inducing moments is the way two songs are blended time and again. Smart rather than gimmicky, the pairings this pair sings allows one number to reflect something about the other, and also lets the Sondheim devotees note the themes and details returned to in songs that saw the light of day years apart. It may be a detail that otherwise would pass unnoticed and seem trivial, but suddenly it’s a duly noted overlap, like remembering trees that used to be.
(Pictured are Jeff Harnar and KT Sullivan from the collection of the late Russ Weatherford.)
Or, just as Jeff finishes his coiled serving of venom in “Could I Leave You,” KT appears in the light with the first-line observation “Sometimes people leave you…” from Into the Woods, a play that is in a very different world, but the worlds briefly meet.
The more literal saga of “The Girls of Summer” —aced by a sly and savvy Sullivan —brings an inspired back-and-forth song partner: the metaphor that tells us “Love is just ‘Sand,’” from an abandoned score. Harnar embodies the lessons in this number approached in cabaret perhaps not coincidentally by a singer he himself directs: Celia Berk. At numerous times, one number slides into another, not giving us chance to applaud, making for a more cohesive experience where we are rapt and wrapped up in one mood while thrillingly forced to not catch our breath before we’re willing thrust or gently cradled to the next adventure. Their singing is glorious, always in service to the material and moment, rather than showy. The act is sculpted with no wasted energy or movement. The eye contact between the two and with the audience is dynamic.
Repertoire choices are refreshing. How welcome it is to hear “Bounce,” which became an unjustly ignored Sondheim gem after it was the title song of his late-career musical that was heavily revised and retitled Road Show. Some of the most familiar material surprises in new settings, not needed an introduction or full-length treatment: from Company, lines from “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” cutely become mini-text message rants within another piece as Jeff fumes. The same score’s “Getting Married Today” becomes his gay wedding jitters without the original sections for the other two characters but allows other musical marriage partners. And when it comes to the most famed of all of the master’s masterpieces, the perhaps inevitable “Send in the Clowns,” it’s refreshed by being done as a full-fledged 50/50 duet, the two comparing notes, truly reflecting and realizing things in the moment. Isn’t it rich? Are they a pair? And, nice icing on the cake is the inclusion of the additional words added years later by the writer at the request of Barbra Streisand (“…What a surprise, what a cliche”). In its own way, that toast to “The Ladies Who Lunch” also finds new juice as a devilish duet, KT hilariously drunker by the sip, the singers recalling Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra sharing a drink and barbed opinions in “Well, Did You Evah?” in the film High Society.
Much is dramatic, not avoiding hitting us in the gut or making us reach for the napkins on the Beechman table when tear ducts are stimulated. Wisdom and bittersweet lessons are paraded.
(Pictured here are Jeff Harnar, KT Sullivan and Jon Weber. Photo by Maryann Lopinto.)
Jon Weber’s graceful, intelligent, emotional, multi-layered arrangements and playing position the poignant to proceed to powerful and the wistful to waken as wiser. There is simply nobody else at this level. Emotion and subtle shadings are ever-present and schmaltz is an absentee.
And when comic relief is needed to break the tension and tears and traumas, the inner goofball vaudevillian in KT jumps into the lurch with a nifty and original spin on “Buddy’s Blues,” one of the program’s unhesitating panache-plus examples of disregarding traditional gender assignments for singing a good song.
Sondheim’s original settings and show arrangements can be intimidatingly tight and brilliant, daring anyone to be creative in a way that could hope to compete. But Weber’s web is woven so wondrously that there is respect without evidence of wariness or intimidation when liberties are taken. Songs burst from their original contexts and stories so well (KT simply drops the name of the character so often directly addressed in the lyric of “Like It Was” from Merrily We Roll Along so that she can sing to us) that it’s almost a disappointment when a cluster of several pieces of material from Sweeney Todd suddenly bursts forth as a lengthy segment.
Merrily or unmerrily we roll along, the canon well sampled, the audience well sated, the songwriter well saluted, the performers glowing under the able lights of Abby Judd and sounding superb and natural, every word of the iconic wordsmith cleal and crisp. A sweet encore is a simple but brilliant choice as a nightcap (no spoilers here, but let’s just say it’s not one of the tried-and-true Hall of Fame warhorses). Just right. Talk about creme de la creme. I’ll drink to that.
The Laurie Beechman Theatre is at 407 West 42 Street in Manhattan, inside the West Bank Cafe. www.westbankcafe.com