Once upon a time (seven years ago to be exact), Phil Geoffrey Bond, the esteemed impresario of what has become the venerable variety series Sondheim Unplugged (launched in 2010 in honor of the iconic composer’s 80th birthday) was strolling through the woods near his home in upstate New York trying to decide how he could conjure up the most enchanting Sondheim-esque Halloween show. He couldn’t decide which musical representation of the master’s dark side would be most hauntingly appropriate—the deliciously relentless blood and gore of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street or the bewitching yet nightmare-inducing Into the Woods. Like the producing wizard he has turned out to be since he launched Sondheim Unplugged 10 years ago (first at the Laurie Beechman Theatre and since 2012 at Feinstein’s/54 Below), Bond decided to blend the two classics into one.
Hence, Into Sweeney Todd’s Woods, which begs the question: If the film versions of these Broadway shows were combined as well, would Johnny Depp, the movie “Sweeney,” be frightened by Johnny Depp, the Woods’ “Big Bad Wolf?” And could Meryl Streep, the “Witch” in the movie Woods, also play Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney?
But I severely digress.
Hosted by the irreverent Rob Maitner (substituting on this occasion for Bond), ably directed by Lucia Spina (who has also been glorious as “Abigail Adams” in F/54 productions of the musical 1776), and featuring pianist Joe Goodrich’s flawless musical direction (with Rob Renino supporting on bass), October 27’s seventh annual Halloween performance of Into Sweeney Todd’s Woods was a delight from the moment the MAC Award-winning vocal group Marquee Five opened the proceedings with haunting harmonies on “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”
Evan Harrington, who has played “The Baker” in a national tour of Woods, followed with a powerful yet tender take on “Johanna” (Sweeney). Spina’s “Witch’s Rap” from Woods was manic and fun and she amazingly didn’t drop one syllable. Like Harrington, Edward Miskie, who has played various roles in productions of Woods, flipped shows by singing Sweeney Todd’s poignant love song to razor blades with “My Friends.” Spina and Miskie would delightfully team up in the show’s second half on one of Sondheim’s cheekiest, black humor numbers, the crowd-pleasing “A Little Priest.”
Multiple MAC and Bistro Award-winner Julie Reyburn fits Sondheim songs like Cinderella and her glass slipper, and she dazzled on a jazzy and sensual arrangement of “Not While I’m Around” (Sweeney), that sounded more like a comforting pledge to an adult friend or lover. Reyburn, who’s currently in the midst of a critically acclaimed run of her new cabaret show at Don’t Tell Mama, came back late in the show with a tear-inducing “Children Will Listen” (Woods).
Rob Maitner not only regaled with periodic anecdotes and trivia on both shows while vintage photos flashed on screens in the background, he provided delicious comic relief cooking up “The Worst Pies in London,” Mrs. Lovett’s song from Sweeney. From the same score, Pierre Marais successfully sold the audience with his Italian accent on “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” while Maitner and Marais formed a fun duet as the romantically-frustrated Princes (to “Cinderella” and “Repunzel”) on “Agony.”
Three other standout soloists were Victoria Elizabeth Cook, Scott Coulter, and Sarah Rice. An adorable, red-haired pixie, Cook was perfectly cast to sing Little Red Riding Hood’s song from Woods, “I Know Things Now.” And it’s not a surprise to know that Cook played the “Witch” in her college production of Woods because she cast a spell on the room with scary good acting (as well as singing) on “The Last Midnight.” A veteran of dozens of variety and tribute shows—many of which he has produced at F/54—Coulter brought tenderness and poignancy to two Woods numbers, “Giants in the Sky,” and “No One Is Alone.” Early in the evening’s set, Sarah Rice offered a lovely take on “Cinderella’s” soliloquy from Woods, “On the Steps of the Palace.” But the real treat came a few numbers later when the ever-youthful woman who originated the character of “Johanna” in Sweeney 40 years ago displayed her still soaring soprano on “Greenfinch and Linnet Bird.”
During a period in our country’s history when the majority of Americans—especially this reviewer—feel they are living through a nightmarish time, experiencing a creatively-produced variety show filled with uber-talented performers was a welcome respite, even if for only 90 minutes. But as Lucia Spina superbly sang late in the show in “Moments in the Woods,” it would be “back to life, back to sense,” yet fervently hoping we will all be, as Stephen Sondheim wrote, “Happy now and happy hence . . . And happy ever after.”
Photo Credit: Stephen Hanks
Top: (Back Row)–Mick Bleyer, Rob Maitner, Edward Miskie, Lucia Spina, Joe Goodrich, Evan Harrington, Pierre Marais. (Front Row)—Vanessa Parvin, Victoria Elizabeth Cook, Julie Reyburn, Sierra Rein, Adam West Hemming, Rebecca Graae. (Kneeling)—Scott Coulter.
Title: Sondheim Unplugged Presents Into Sweeney Todd’s Woods
Featuring: Victoria Elizabeth Cook, Scott Coulter, Evan Harrington, Rob Maitner, Pierre Marais, Marquee Five (Mick Bleyer, Rebecca Graae, Adam West Hemming, Vanessa Parvin, Sierra Rein,), Edward Miskie, Julie Reyburn, Sarah Rice, and Lucia Spina (Director).
Musical Director: Joe Goodrich
Bass: Rob Renino
254 West 54th Street
New York, New York
Sunday, October 27, 2019