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An Arts Buffet That Sticks to the Ribs

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

The pint-size Astaire-and-Rogers teams from "Mad Hot Ballroom" got the more tumultuous ovation, but Sondheim freaks found other reasons to exult Sunday night at the Kennedy Center's 35th-anniversary gala: a reunion of Angela Lansbury and George Hearn, re-creating one of the most extraordinary moments the composer has given the American musical.

On the stage of the Concert Hall, Lansbury and Hearn sang "A Little Priest," the wit- and blood-infused refreshment that delivers audiences captivatingly to the intermission of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." It was on a Broadway stage in 1979 that Lansbury and Len Cariou, as the ghoulishly pragmatic Mrs. Lovett and the pathologically intense Sweeney, unveiled the song. Hearn would succeed Cariou in the role, and his version with Lansbury would just as entertainingly get at the number's music-hall derangement, its brilliant melding of the urges to tickle human ribs -- and devour them.

To watch again as Lansbury, 80, and Hearn, 71, elegantly worked their way through Sondheim's precision-guided puns and rhymes was, for any Sondheimiac, sheer bliss. They reunited for "A Little Priest" a year ago, at the "Wall to Wall" Sondheim festival in Manhattan, a 12-hour concert in honor of the composer's 75th birthday. Reports from that event described Lansbury's delivery as tentative. On Sunday, however, few rough edges were detectable in the shortened version they sang. Applying a pair of red bows to her hair -- in place of Mrs. Lovett's signature buns -- Lansbury was playfully in her element as the girlish instigator of the plan to turn cannibalism into a cash business.

The gala itself, of course, is in large measure about cash, and the amount raised Sunday for the Kennedy Center's education programs -- $2.8 million, the benefit's record -- was as impressive as the starry lineup.

As conceived and directed by Marvin Hamlisch, the 95-minute production was not without moments of variety-show kitsch. A finale in which bass-baritone Greer Grimsley sang "The Impossible Dream" as a pair of aerialists spun on rivers of fabric overhead had everything you'd find on the Strip except the two-drink minimum.

The hour and a half leading up to this anticlimactic climax, however, unfolded as a satisfying smorgasbord, showcasing top-drawer performers and the institution's mainstream tastes. It's in the nature of such anniversaries that a retrospective quality imbue many of the performances, and this occasion was no exception. Two numbers from "Les Miserables" -- delivered Three Tenors-style by Craig Shulman, J. Mark McVey and Timothy Shew, all of whom have played its leading man, Jean Valjean -- attested to the evening's efforts to keep to the middle of the road.

Judy Collins, silver-maned, sleek and smashing in an ink-dark evening gown, sang her hugely successful cover of Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns," from "A Little Night Music." Soprano Harolyn Blackwell, shoulders bared fetchingly in a strapless gown, lent a subtle emotionalism to "My Joe," a song she performed in the center's revival of "Carmen Jones" in 2002. Violinist Sarah Chang was recruited for a Max Bruch violin concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra Pops, under Hamlisch's baton, and the quicksilver tap virtuoso Savion Glover gave a scorching exhibition of a style that leaves the impression his feet are affixed to drumsticks.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, imported in a nod to post-Katrina New Orleans, provided an infectious "When the Saints Go Marching In." But an even more inspirational interlude involved the evening's youngest performers: 24 New York public school children who were featured in the delightful 2005 documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom," about a city program that teaches ballroom dancing to 11-year-olds. In completely endearing fashion, each of the dozen couples -- boys in black shirts and slacks and red bow ties, girls in red skirts -- tangoed and waltzed and merengued. The crowd-pleasing sequence proved a most seductive argument for arts in the schools.

Lansbury and Hearn were the preceding act, and a bit of skillful narration might have made the significance of their re-teaming clearer to the Concert Hall audience. (So, too with the context of the number; although performed at the center in 2002 as part of the Sondheim Celebration, "Sweeney Todd" is not exactly on a par in the public imagination with "The Sound of Music.")

As with so many of Sondheim's subjects, "Sweeney Todd" is an unlikely one for a musical. It's a tale of irredeemable darkness, about an appetite for revenge that consumes everything, even the avenger. "A Little Priest" cements the alliance of two mad creatures, one intent on killing everything in his path, the other, in binding herself to a killing machine -- and making a living off the leftovers. The song itself is a listing by occupation of all the kinds of people they'll kill and bake into meat pies. Its hilarious, compulsive rhyming is as cathartically funny as the topic is stomach-churning. As Sweeney says: "The history of the world, my sweet/Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat."

Both actors were in fine voice in the Concert Hall. Their timing was spot-on, too. "A Little Priest" works best when the singers know how to underline but not overwork the punning, and on that score, neither Hearn nor Lansbury seemed to need a refresher course. The Kennedy Center is planning a reunion concert next year of its popular 2002 production with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski. On the evidence of Sunday's "A Little Priest," the stars of "Sweeney's" early days might warrant an event all their own.

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