REVIEW: Sondheim Unplugged, volumes 1 and 2

Recording CoverIt’s immense. The first two volumes of Phil Geoffrey Bond’s Sondheim Unplugged series – a third double album is set to be released this summer – between them include no fewer than eighty-six tracks, and since there are a handful of medleys that’s a grand total of ninety-one songs, drawn from just about every corner of Stephen Sondheim's catalogue. They’re sung by a dazzling group of Broadway actors and cabaret artists, and, as in the cabaret series that inspired these recordings, the accompaniment is a solo piano rather than a band. That could very easily be a recipe for something excruciatingly self-indulgent, but it’s the absolute opposite: the focus is very firmly on the music and the lyrics, and the stellar cast of singers do a mostly superb job of getting to the heart of their songs.

And having said that, my favourite things in these two collections are all at the more light-hearted end of the Sondheim canon. Kate Loprest offers an absolutely delightful grown-up rendition of Let Me Entertain You, the peerless Karen Mason has entirely too much fun with Dick Tracy’s Live Alone And Like It, and Sally Mayes has a splendid time finding every last scrap of innuendo in Can That Boy Foxtrot?

If you’re looking for meatier material, though, there’s plenty here. Donna Vivino does a particularly lovely job with Merrily We Roll Along’s Like It Was. There’s a thoughtful take on Evening Primrose’s I Remember from cabaret singer Lina Koutrakos. Lisa Sabin makes Dawn, from the unproduced movie musical Singing Out Loud, into a surprising highlight. It’s always a pleasure to hear Dee Hoty sing Could I Leave You?. Sally Mayes (again) turns Send In The Clowns into a full-on torch song, and shows why almost nobody does this sort of thing better than she does. And the second volume closes with a movingly fragile Goodbye For Now from Sarah Rice.

It's fun, too, to hear Danielle Ferland – Red Riding Hood in the original Broadway cast of Into The Woods – throw herself into a thoroughly lascivious take on the Wolf’s Hello, Little Girl, and to hear Annie Golden singing Unworthy Of Your Love more than thirty years after she introduced the song in the original off-Broadway production of Assassins. And there’s something very moving indeed about hearing Jim Walton sing Merrily We Roll Along’s Our Time forty years after he played the role on Broadway.

There’s an occasional misstep, because in a collection this size nobody is going to love absolutely everything; for me, Alton Fitzgerald White’s medley of Someone Is Waiting and Pretty Woman is overly tricksy, and the shift from a rather lugubrious reading of the former song to an overly jazzy arrangement of the latter does no favours for either song or for Mr. White. And while it’s understandable that Bond attempts to give us something from every Sondheim show, some songs – Someone In A Tree, for example – strenuously resist being sung out of context as a cabaret piece.

Still, these are two essential collections. So much is so good that every Sondheim fan should want to own these albums. The songs and singers are peerless, Joseph Goodrich’s piano accompaniment is flawless throughout, and for the most part Bond’s stripped-back approach allows both the songs and the singers to shine.


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