Music review

National Symphony Orchestra's Stephen Sondheim tribute falls a bit flat

Bright spot: Maria Friedman's understated yet dramatic performances of Sondheim staples were highlights on Thursday.
Bright spot: Maria Friedman's understated yet dramatic performances of Sondheim staples were highlights on Thursday. (Kennedy Center)
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By Nelson Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2010

Puzzles have long intrigued composer Stephen Sondheim, the perpetually hailed deity of American musical theater, but that doesn't account for the puzzlements of the National Symphony Orchestra's tribute concert Thursday night.

Where, for instance, were the wicked wit and show-biz savvy that make Sondheim's material -- whatever the forum -- so dynamic in performance? Why did Broadway veterans Brian d'Arcy James and Michael Cerveris need to glance down at the lyrics -- taped to music stands that were not quite hidden in front of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage -- to "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid"? And why was the Choral Arts Society of Washington kept on such a short leash all night?

The concert was a celebration of Sondheim's 80th birthday this spring, and even amid the mysteries there were marvels. Most of them involved singer Maria Friedman, a British musical theater star who brought an understated, riveting drama to several staples. Her first showstopper was the least likely: a long, slow rendition of "Send in the Clowns" that she performed sitting down, suggesting that her romantically duped character was utterly stumped. Friedman's performance, backed by the low, brooding music from the orchestra, was deeply marinated in regret and just bitter enough to give Sondheim's most familiar tune a fresh edge.

That simmering turn elevated an iffy first half, which was worth remembering chiefly for what conductor Marvin Hamlisch called the "jazzy and ferocious" overture from "Merrily We Roll Along." Liz Callaway sang that show's heartbreaking "Not a Day Goes By" as the NSO provided epic scale, a nice step up from the antic but not quite funny delivery of songs from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Company."

The "Sweeney Todd" selections demonstrated why concerts can be more rewarding than revivals of Sondheim shows these days. With acclaimed troupes sometimes downsizing orchestras to half a dozen players or fewer -- and with director John Doyle having the actors play instruments for Broadway's recent "Sweeney Todd" and "Company" -- a deluxe treatment of this great music is hard to come by in the theater. So it was thrilling to hear the sinister suspense and wrathful outbursts of "Sweeney" played with lashing force by the NSO.

Cerveris, star of Doyle's "Sweeney" a few seasons back, sang "My Friends" to the barber's razors with controlled menace -- but just when the song peaks and a chorus is supposed to take over (as surely everyone in the house knew), the stage blacked out, and the number was over. Why, with the robust Choral Arts Society on hand? That chorus backed Callaway ever so slightly during the always-moving "Children Will Listen" but otherwise had little to do.

The performance failed to capitalize on a number of opportunities and too seldom blended the complementary strengths of theater and the concert hall. The evening found its entertaining footing, though, when Hamlisch sat at the piano and plaintively accompanied Friedman for "Broadway Baby," with the singer taking a ginger approach and neatly teasing out the eventual belting triumph. Hamlisch and Friedman teamed up again for "Children and Art" from "Sunday in the Park With George," and the subtlety of their piano and vocal performance was magnetic.

"Sunday's" surging, inspiring "Move On," led by James and Callaway, brought the evening to a fine, full-bodied finish. But it was hard to shake the sensation that a concert for the "Sondheim is God" crowd could have been highlights all night long.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

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