Talk about going out with a bang…! The last in 2022’s Lyrics & Lyricists series (50 years and strong) was so consummately terrific, it frankly deserves to live on. Cut it down to two hours with an intermission and send it on the road! In a year when despite profound appreciation, it’s easy to get Sondheimed-out, Ted Sperling has put together a program of songs cohesively tracing the arc of relationships- “because he was known for his wit, I thought let’s get to know him better, to appreciate his warmth…”peppered by engaging stories (and photos!) that utterly engage and delight.
Two selections from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – one cut from the production- open the evening with love’s naivete. Jordan Donica’s rendition of “Love I Hear” is sweet and appealing. Exemplifying the vicissitudes of dating, Ben Davis and Scarlett Strallen perform Company’s ‘morning after’ song, “Barcelona.” Strallen’s ‘I see only what I want to see’ persona is pitch perfect.The host notes that with no experience of marriage and feeling somewhat at sea, Sondheim invited longtime friend Mary Rodgers (Richard Rodgers’ daughter and a songwriter in her own right) to his home to “tell me everything you know about marriage.” He took notes. The inquiry was clearly successful.
Showing range, Strallen and the equally talented Donica offer what Sperling calls the “full tilt of romance” with “Happiness” from Passion. The two actors convincingly gaze, touch, react, and sing with chemistry and frisson.
Davis and Donica portray the arrogant princes from Into the Woods with an “Agony” whose braggadocio could bust buttons, then radically switch tracks playing lovers for a thoroughly inviting version of “The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened,” a song that should be heard more often. (Roadshow). The men exude affection. Sperling enlightens us on the rocky journey of that musical which never reached Broadway, a pity as there was so much there (I saw it at The Public Theater.)
Rarely heard, “Take Me to the World” is disinterred from Sondheim’s television play Evening Primrose, a collaboration with James Goldman with whom he’d later create Follies. Danica is a poet escaping society by living in a department store, Solea Pfeiffer a mannequin who ably conveys longing to experience it. (This can be YouTubed.) Though a bland Hamptons single in “The Girls of Summer,” the actress manifests vaudevillian skill in “Getting Married Today.” Physical comedy here is as gleefully effective as vocal expression and articulation. (She looks like an Edward Gorey character experiencing the vapors.)
“We’ve had a wedding, now the long road of marriage…” Sperling continues. Donica’s winning seduction in “Any Moment/Moments in the Woods” (Into the Woods) is delicious. His “Good Thing Going” (Merrily We Roll Along about which Sperling shares wonderful anecdotes) arrives poignant with just a tad of pop inflection acknowledging the host’s introduction. Apparently this was one of two songs pre-released as “pop” in hope of generating interest. On a roll, Donica joins Strallen for a stunning “Moving On” (Sunday in the Park with George). Both of these artists are worthy of sizable careers.
Pfeiffer and Davis take us deftly to the end of relationships with “With So Little to Be Sure Of” (Anyone Can Whistle.) “Strallen’s “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music) is more bitter than jaded; Donica’s “Being Alive”, a revelation in real time. We close with two optimistic songs from Follies.
Without having read the credits, my first comment when the lights came up at intermission was, “I’d hire that director.” Performers’ gestures, expression and interaction were just right. A cohesive emotional arc is apparent. Sperling is articulate, charming and having been mentored by and known Mr. Sondheim for decades, overflows with both professional insight and nifty stories. Credit where credit is due (to the honoree), this evening reflects admiration and affection, not worship.
Joshua Clayton’s arrangements were uniformly splendid and performed with accomplishment.
Projection Design (creating backgrounds) by Lacey Kerb was evocative without intruding.
Opening Photo- Ted Sperling
Photos by Richard Termine
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents
Isn’t It Bliss? – Sondheim in Love
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Conceived/Directed/Music Directed/Hosted by Ted Sperling
Arrangements- Joshua Clayton
Featuring: Ben Davis, Jordan Donica, Solea Pfeiffer, Scarlett Strallen