The crowd at the Hollywood Bowl was abuzz with excitement, as they patiently filed into their seats with their packed dinners and bottles of wine, to see a stellar cast of Broadway veterans sing some of the greatest musical theatre songs ever written in Sondheim on Sondheim. Stephen Sondheim is a musical theatre legend at this point, having redefined the art form with his intricate orchestrations and lyrics that are at once complicated and simply beautiful.
The evening is interspersed with clips of Sondheim speaking about various moments in his life and career, giving not only context to each song but also a window into the artist himself. If you didn’t know much about the man before the concert, you left feeling like you’d made a new friend; quite a feat considering what a private individual he has always been.
For most of his career, Sondheim has chosen to collaborate with other artists and says he relishes having parameters. Expanding on this during one of the clips, he says, “If you tell me to write a song about a woman in a red dress who walks into a bar and is on her fifth martini then I can write about the dress, the drink, where did she come from? I have something to write about. But if you ask me to write a torch song tonight, I would have trouble with that.” We then segue beautifully into a duet of two gorgeous “torch songs” that, as is his custom, are filled with mundane and gorgeous details; Losing My Mind from Follies and Not a Day Goes By from Merrily We Roll Along.
Singing those two powerful songs, respectively, are Vanessa Williams and Solea Pfeiffer. Williams is of course known for her many albums, television and film roles, but she also has theatre chops having won a Tony for the revival of Into The Woods, earning raves in Kiss of the Spider Woman and headlining the Kennedy Center production of Carmen Jones. Looking stunning in a billowing, light green gown, Williams delivered the star power and depth the song demands. Pfeiffer, currently starring as Eliza Hamilton in the San Francisco/Los Angeles production of Hamilton, gave a dazzling rendition of the second ballad and the way they blended the two songs at the end was inspired.
Phillip Boykin, best known for his award winning performance in the 2002 production of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess lent his absolutely booming voice to several dramatic songs from Sweeney Todd and Assassins. The radiant Sarah Uriarte Berry, of The Light in the Piazza fame, took on the classic and probably most well-known Sondheim song, Send In The Clowns, providing an emotional highlight.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family’s Mitchell Pritchett, was absolutely hilarious in the show-stopping number, Franklin Shepard Inc, while Carmen Cusack, Tony nominated for last year’s Bright Star, and Lewis Cleale, currently on Broadway in The Book of Mormon, gave heartfelt performances of the unlikely couple in Passions. Ruthie Ann Miles, Lady Thiang in the 2015 revival of The King and I, was a stunning presence singing Take Me To The World from Evening Primrose. She and the winsome Claybourne Elder, with his gorgeous tenor voice, had a tender moment in Beautiful from Sunday in the Park. Elder is a terrific George whose voice soared in Finishing a Hat. Finally, the original King George III in Hamilton, the ever charismatic Jonathan Groff, stunned with his impassioned, poignant performance of Being Alive.
The cast seemed to be having a great time sinking their teeth into these emotionally dense songs, singing together on the ensemble numbers and supporting one another on stage as each had their solo moments. Particularly dramatic was the breathtaking Sunday from Sunday in the Park with George and the touching moment as students of LA Phil’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles joined the cast on stage for a stirring rendition of Children Will Listen from Into The Woods and the Bowl was drenched in magnificent sound.
The always charming Gustavo Dudamel conducted the sensational LA Philharmonic and Sarna Lapine’s direction was clever, witty, and seamless. The performance was a benefit for YOLA and other LA Phil educational initiatives.
For tickets and information about YOLA and LA Phil visit www.laphil.com