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Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I wasn't looking forward to SONDHEIM! THE BIRTHDAY CONCERT (2010) because I didn't really know how I'd respond to a gala evening of musical theater selections from plays I'd never seen.  After awhile, though, it starts to heat up and get interesting.  Even for a non-fan like me, the wide range of material and the passion with which it's performed can become infectious if you're willing to give in to it.

Recorded on March 15-16, 2010 in the Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, the concert is a celebration of composer Steven Sondheim's 80th birthday and features tunes from througout his long career.  With longtime collaborator Paul Gemignani conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the vocal talent on display here is top-notch and the songlist is filled with some of Sondheim's finest and most popular works.  Tony Award winner David Hyde Pierce (of "Frasier" fame) provides the segues between numbers with his usual droll style which, unlike the forced humor of most emcees, is actually funny.

After the overture, the current cast of West Side Story kicks things off with a dash through "America."  (I know that one!)  Director Lonny Price goes a little nuts with the rapid-fire camera angles here, but fortunately he settles down as the evening progresses.  This is followed by "Something's Coming", another one that I recognized from West Side Story, sung by the conductor's son, Alexander Gemingnani. 

A number of noteworthy duets include Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley's "We're Gonna Be Alright" and Audrey McDonald and Nathan Gunn with "Too Many Mornings."  Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien's cheerful "It Takes Two" lightens things up.  In between are solo performances by Victoria Clark ("Don't Laugh") and familiar film actor John McMartin ("The Road You Didn't Take").

Mandy Patinkin gives us "Finishing the Hat" in his usual oddball style, then is joined by the still-gorgeous Bernadette Peters for the emotional "Move On."  It's at this point, thanks in large part to the divine Bernadette, that the event really starts to ignite.  Some frivolous fun finally lights up the place with a raucous "Sweeney Todd" medley ("Pretty Women", "Little Priest") by Patti LuPone, George Hearn, and Michael Cerveris. 

After a few more songs, the main reason for watching this concert comes when Pierce steps out from behind his emcee's podium and croons "Beautiful Girls", bringing a group of the evening's female singers onto the stage in what will be a series of dazzling solo performances.  Patti LuPone's belts out "The Ladies Who Lunch" in classic show-stopper style and is topped only by the venerable Elaine Stritch, showing that she still has it despite her advanced age with the delightfully triumphant "I'm Still Here."  These two ladies really bring the house down with what are easily the most exciting performances of the entire evening.

The only way to go out after that is to bring in performers from shows currently playing all over New York for a final tribute.  Seated in the audience, Sondheim reacts with extreme emotion as scores of people file down the aisles and congregate onstage singing the elegaic "Sunday."  (I think I even recognized "Benny" from TOTAL RECALL up there!)  Then comes the inevitable "Happy Birthday To You", a tearful thank you from Sondheim, and the show's over.

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.  There are no subtitles or extras.  This show originally aired on PBS' "Great Performances" (most likely interrupted every ten minutes by pledge breaks) and runs almost two hours. 

You probably have to be familiar with Sondheim's musicals to get the most out of SONDHEIM! THE BIRTHDAY CONCERT, and it's a sure bet that some viewers aren't going to get anything out of it at all.  But despite a few numbers that aren't all that exciting, and taking into account the fact that I'm about as familiar with musical theater as I am with nuclear fission, I found a lot to be entertained by in this set.  Especially in that second half, which contains some performances that are just plain impressive no matter what kind of music you're into.

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