Stephen Sondheim in Conversation: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 10/29/11

31 10 2011

Segerstrom Center for the Arts sent an e-mail around 4pm and the LA Times published an article at 5:50, but Jen and I didn’t know the news until we reached the box office last night:

We regret to inform you that Stephen Sondheim was unable to travel to Orange County due to snow storms in the New York area which have impacted flights.

What is “Stephen Sondheim in Conversation” without Stephen Sondheim? Jen and I were disappointed, to be sure … but not devastated. We would be appeased with an impromptu concert. Last night’s brilliantly cobbled-together performance illuminated the the immense talents of Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes Mitchell, as well as their music director Tedd Firth; the joys of “live” performance; and, perhaps most importantly, the way in which Stephen Sondheim’s work has indelibly impacted his fans’ lives. Although Sondheim was not present for the concert, his creative and collaborative spirit presided over the evening’s deeply satisfying entertainment.

Michael Kerker, director of musical theater for ASCAP, kicked off the concert with an explanation of the travel fiasco. Apparently Sondheim was in the plane at JFK, ready to depart, when all flights were canceled due to accumulating snow. In true theatrical fashion, Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes Mitchell – already in Orange County – decided the show must go on. They met in their dressing room yesterday afternoon and pieced together a set list of favorite Sondheim songs. With Kerker providing detailed historical connective tissue and animated anecdotes between musical numbers, Ebersole and Mitchell conquered an impressive array of material: from hit 11 o’clock numbers to songs cut in pre-Broadway tryouts, from canonized classics to (in)famous musical flops.

We often praise performance for its “liveness,” but let’s be honest: that “liveness” is not always palpable. Theater aims for consistency through repetition; it is scripted and blocked, often functioning like a well-oiled machine. The relationships between actors will shift slightly from night to night, and the dynamic of the audience can shape a performance; these shifts are most palpable for the cast, creative team, and repeat theatergoers. But nothing makes us so aware of “liveness” as when the machine breaks, when “real life” intervenes and performers are made vulnerable. (Why do you think Spider Man continues to sell on Broadway … ?) Last night’s concert was all the more thrilling because its “liveness” was palpable. The set list had been sketched out beforehand, but the exact details were delightfully improvisatory. The highly knowledgeable Michael Kerker could throw in another Sondheim story on a whim; Brian Stokes Mitchell could delay a song’s start for a heartfelt tribute to his accompanist; Christine Ebersole could quip away. The performers’ playfulness and generosity enraptured the audience.

The concert included three outstanding duets starring Ebersole and Mitchell: “You Must Meet My Wife” from A Little Night Music, “Barcelona” from Company, and an especially rollicking “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd. The always-solid Brian Stokes Mitchell offered a determined performance of “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle and a heartwrenching “Loving You” from Passion, though his “In Praise of Women” from A Little Night Music lacked humor and “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods could have used a more youthful sense of discovery.

As impressive a performer as Mitchell is, his dramatic baritone felt one-note in comparison to Christine Ebersole’s versatile soprano. Ebersole deftly flipped among accents in “The Boy From …” (a parody of “The Girl from Ipanema”), while her take on “Can That Boy Foxtrot” milked every lyric for sexual innuendo – and sent the unsuspecting audience into fits of laughter. Although Ebersole is an effortless and exuberant comedienne, her standout performances last night were three of Sondheim’s most riveting compositions: “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, and “I’m Still Here” from Follies. Ebersole owned each iconic song of female survival as if she were originating it.

Few performers have the range to perform the gritty and cynical Joanne, the contemplative Desiree, and the staunch Carlotta – particularly within the span of a single concert. Yet it is precisely this range that captivated me when I first saw Ebersole in Grey Gardens. Her Edie Bouvier vocally intertwined the weight of old age with a lingering youthful naivete; a mournful flatness of tone would warm into a soaring and rich vibrato, nostalgic for her glory days. Ebersole’s performances last night were similarly nuanced, with her invigoratingly direct rendition of “I’m Still Here” even winning a standing ovation from many audience members. If only Ebersole had performed “Losing My Mind” from Follies or “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along …

Music director Tedd Firth deserves special notice for not only his stunning piano performance of such challenging scores, but for his remarkable skills as a collaborative accompanist. When Ebersole rhythmically faltered throughout “Sorry-Grateful,” Firth seamlessly adapted the underscoring to fit her singing. (For the record: Ebersole may have been off beat in this song from Company, but she infused “Sorry-Grateful” with a poignant lyricism that many performances sorely lack.)

In a brief interlude, Michael Kerker engaged Ebersole and Mitchell in a little conversation beginning with the question: “What gift has Sondheim given to performers?” Ebersole’s response was poetic and precise: Sondheim has given both performers and audiences “the gift of gray.” His songs are multifaceted, embracing all the complications and contradictions of humanity. Mitchell agreed that Sondheim writes such rewarding and psychologically complex roles; he uniquely inhabits his characters while composing.

The truth is, Sondheim inhabits his characters – and his characters inhabit us. Although neither Christine Ebersole nor Brian Stokes Mitchell had performed most of these songs for an audience before, Mitchell expressed a sense that the songs were in their bones and in their blood – as they are in the audiences’. I heard more than a few fans singing along (under their breath) with the glorious performances on stage. By the end of the evening, the initial disappointment of Stephen Sondheim’s inability to appear “live” had given way to a passionate (re)engagement with his creative work. Although Sondheim (“the voice of God”) phoned in from NYC to apologize for missing the concert, there was no apology necessary. Last night was a once-in-a-lifetime gift.

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