As she sits on the piano stool, vocalist Susan Werner quips that to her Stephen Sondheim is “THE patron saint of ambivalence.” She is not only referring to his equivocating lyrics that habitually look at all sides of an issue. She demonstrates the way each Sondheim musical phrase moves from minor to major and back to minor again. It’s a charm for most, but it seems that for vocalists,this musical ambivalence has the draw of a super magnet.
This is the kind of cozy reflection one thinks of getting from a musician in a piano bar, or smoky Las Vegas lounge. We aren’t in such surrounds. Rather, it is the historic Auditorium Theatre with its super-sized stage. A few dozen musicians from the Chicago Philharmonic are joined by a dozen+ vocalists, led by the event Director Joan Curto.
Curto shares that this is her fifth such Auditorium Theatre gig, and elicits laughs from balcony to main floor, when she mentions that she knows quite a few in the sold-out crowd. The evening included performance of 20 songs or mixes, as well as two orchestral mash-ups of Sondheim music, and also parts of scores from Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne for which Sondheim penned lyrics.
This was a very enthusiastic crowd, which seemed to eat up the evening’s musical fare with great eagerness. Many had just arrived from a black tie gala, injecting a festive feel in the air.
This was not Sondheim music as one hears it in a Sondheim musical, for better or worse. Rather, these were free range vocalists’ renditions. When Robert Sims sang Maria from West Side Story, many, like this writer, probably couldn’t help but feel that his soul infusion to the song took it to another level. Rodrick Dixon’s Somewhere performance, a crowd favorite that brought many to their feet, showed his Olympic vocal range capable of scaling the peaks of Everest, and then in the same breath spelunkle way down deep. Heidi Kettenring didn’t disappoint her fans—in either her comic rendition of Not Getting Married from Company,or her more serious performance of torch song Losing My Mind from Follies. Other Chicago theater regulars likely also went scrambling to their program book to find out which person the crisp and pleasing voice of Jaymes Osborne belonged to.
This tribute to Sondheim on his upcoming 90th birthday began with a short video apology by Sondheim for being a no-show at the bash. He explained, and pitched, an upcoming revival of West Side Story that he is immersed in.
Grant Park Music Festival regulars might remember an earlier Sondheim tribute when we were thrilled by his wave to the crowd from his audience seat. Similarly, by this writer’s lights, diehard Sondheim fans couldn’t have found a better Sondheim music love letter than Porchlight’s Marry Me A Little.That performance had the feel of Sondheim emerging from the cover of a New Yorker magazine to shake our hand. In this CHICAGO CELEBRATES SONDHEIM! there was a lot of effort, apparently, to mix songs of different eras, to down tempo most performances, or stake out new ground for the classic Send in the Clowns by pairing Curto’s rendition with a guitarist. It just didn’t work, for this reviewers’ ears, more attuned to the recent highly recommended Chicago performances of Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Gypsy, West Side Story, and more, moving along at a quicker pace, in the context of a dramatic story.
Based on the crowd vibe, this writer’s critique was a very minority point of view. The crowd loved it! If you adore hearing the kind of music chanteuses let loose in a lounge, a next Auditorium Theatre show of this ilk should probably be added to your short list of must-sees. If you lean more towards musical theater purist, this type vocal cabaret mix-up is probably not your top pick show.
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For information on upcoming performances in this historic venue, please visit the Auditorium Theatre website.
Photos by Brett Beiner