NEW YORK–A polished and very agreeable program of Stephen Sondheim’s songs should make for a spirited “Great Performances” telecast next year, when this benefit for Carnegie Hall is slated for distribution over PBS. An RCA recording is also promised.
Tout New York showed up for the gala, which had been almost as hot a ticket — and almost as hyped — as “Guys and Dolls” or “Crazy for You.” The one-night-only occasion promised stars of Broadway and opera in a tribute to the composer-lyricist. The roster included Glenn Close, Liza Minnelli, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Betty Buckley, Dorothy Loudon, Madeline Kahn, James Naughton and Michael Jeter.
New Age clown Bill Irwin was an inspired choice for master of ceremonies, of sorts. Coming onstage after a somewhat inflated symphonic overture on themes from “Sweeney Todd,” Irwin, rigged with a stage manager’s headset and looking hilariously incongruous in the glittery setting, got the evening off to its true start by introducing himself as Angela Lansbury and noting that “Sweeney” was the show that “Steve wrote for me.”
Selections followed from many of the musicals for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics. Among the more tantalizing choices were the Boys Choir of Harlem singing the euphoric “Our Time,” from “Merrily We Roll Along”; “Secret Garden” Tony winner Daisy Eagan singing a verite “Broadway Baby,” from “Follies, ” Peters’ contained, angry “Not A Day Goes By,” also from “Merrily,” and Close’s nicely understated “Send in the Clowns,” from “A Little Night Music.”
Minnelli and Billy Stritch added a touch of Vegas razzmatazz with the debut of a new Sondheim number, “Water Under the Bridge,” from Sondheim’s upcoming film, “Singing Out Loud.” Irwin also kicked off the second half grandly, faking it as conductor for a marvelous symphonic compilation from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
Musical director Paul Gemigniani’s incomparable musical-theater sensibility was in evidence throughout the performance, as the evening showed a deft balance between ballads and big numbers. But Scott Ellis’ direction never rose above the garden-variety traffic-directing endemic to these programs. And Susan Stroman’s choreography ranged from stealing from her on work on “Crazy for You” to an embarrassingly wrong-headed reverie, featuring dancers Robert LaFosse and Leslie Browne, performed to “Barcelona,” one of Sondheim’s most cynical songs.
Moreover, the evening seemed oddly skewed away from some of Sondheim’s best work, and fans will miss contributions from such seemingly obvious but missing participants — Len Cariou, Mandy Patinkin, Barbra Streisand and Julie Wilson come most immediately to mind.
A rolling, powerful chorus of “Sunday,” from “Sunday in the Park with George, ” provided a moving finale. By no means a definitive overview of the Sondheim canon, this tribute nevertheless spotlighted some great theater songs performed before a friendly and responsive crowd.