Succulant Sondheim

I came to a richer understanding of Stephen Sondheim’s music during the second installment of Sondheim in September. Sondheim’s music is so often characterized as being difficult, and critics and artists alike have agreed that certain artists, like Bernadette Peters for example, are superior to others in their talent for communicating and interpreting the complexity behind Sondheim’s lyrics. Musically, rhythmically, technically, I know that Sondheim’s music is a challenge for singers and for musicians, and I think I had always assumed that this is what was meant by the difficulty of Sondheim. Of course, Bernadette Peters is brilliant and she is a passionate singer; she is superior to most people in her talent for communicating and interpreting, that’s why she is Bernadette Peters. Right?
Yet as I leaned as far forward as I dared in my seat on the front row of the balcony during Sondheim in September II, I was struck with something new. Sondheim’s music requires something rooted deep within the performer that cannot be faked. The work is weighty and solid in a way that it cannot be just performed, but it must be given life from the soul. That is what gives Bernadette Peters authority over this canon of work. Follies, I think, is especially difficult, and when it is performed exquisitely, as in George Masswohl and Glynnis Ranney’s performance of “Two Many Mornings,” the audience is really able to appreciate the artistry of Sondheim’s work.
Julie Michels sang “Could I Leave You” filled with panache and perfect timing and vocal timbre and then gave a haunting rendition of “Send in the Clowns” accompanied by Jeff Koller. She is magnificent. Judith Lander sang a beautifully anguished “Losing My Mind,” which I absolutely adored. Andrea Wingelaar gave another amazing performance with “Take Me to the World” and Jay Turvey was wonderfully captivating with “I Remember,” in a performance where his character discovered the lyrics beautifully, as though he were singing the song for the first time. Lovely.
Dale Miller, Peter Huck and Russell Tyson Clark sang a fantastic rendition of “Pretty Lady,” simultaneously showing off their beautiful voices and Sondheim’s vibrant harmonies. Dale Miller was especially impressive in this evening’s concert as he sang in bright falsetto, full bass and, it seemed, every note in between.
And, of course Paula Wolfson stopped the show cold, brought the house down, and raised them to their feet, and left jaws agape and diaphragms sore in laughter with her extraordinary rendition of “I’m Still Here.” She is a mind-blowing performer. We may have been in Church, but the only words I could think of to express my awe were, “HOLY SHIT” and I doubt I was the only one. It was one of those moments in the theatre that you know will stay with you forever.
It seemed unlikely that the evening could get any better, and then there was Sweeney Todd. Someone needs to quickly assemble a creative team and cast George Masswohl as Sweeney Todd, Sharron Matthews as Mrs. Lovett, Megan Nuttall as Johanna and Jeff Irving as Anthony. Someone should present this production in a large venue in Toronto and then transfer it to New York. Bloody Hell is this dream cast ever brilliant. George Masswohl is the ultimate Sweeney Todd, and together with Sharron Matthews, “A Little Priest” was absolutely, blissfully, delectable. Burke Moses was far more convincing as the arrogant Judge Turpin than he is in The Sound of Music, and his duet with Masswohl was electric. Jeff Irving was brilliantly beseeching in his rendition of “Johanna,” which showed off his incredible acting ability and his beautiful voice. I had Goosebumps throughout the entire segment and wanted the opportunity to see the whole thing performed again and again. It was such a smash success that “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” was sung twice- to much acclaim. Seriously, Mr. Producer (I’m talking to you, Sir) save yourself the hassle of auditions: George Masswohl. Sharron Matthews. Megan Nuttall. Jeff Irving. Sweeney Todd. Let’s do this!
I am in awe of all the talented people who live and work in the city of Toronto. The final installment of Sondheim in September is sure to be just as inspiring, with performances of music from Sunday in the Park with George, Merrily We Roll Along, Assassins and Into the Woods. All proceeds benefit the Actor’s Fund of Canada. Tickets are $25.00 and for more information please visit this fine website. Attend the tale; you may have an epiphany.

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