REVIEWS

“CD Review: Sondheim Sublime – Melissa Errico

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

 

Isn’t it bliss? asks Stephen Sondheim rhetorically in his most famous creation Send In The Clowns and bliss it is when the thrilling Melissa Errico lets loose for one golden hour of the greatest living composer’s work on her new album Sondheim Sublime.

 

Errico is a well-kept secret in the UK but a big star on Broadway, not just as a Sondheim interpreter where she stands comparison with Bernadette Peters but as a musical theatre all-rounder much admired by Sondheim himself.

 

Her Sondheim CV started with Dot in Sunday in the Park With George in 2002 and has continued with Clara in Passion in 2013 and, three years later, Leona in Do I Hear a Waltz? Sondheim’s least favourite show because he didn’t get on with his distinguished collaborator Richard Rodgers.

 

The striking Errico needs to be seen because she’s a visual talent with hypnotic hands, an actress who gets under the skin of her material and as a formidable intellect – she has an honours degree in art history and philosophy from Yale – she can talk the talk.

 

And she will be seen for three nights (6-8 May 2019) in a return visit to Live at Zédel in London where she made a brilliant cabaret debut in February of last year.

 

But for the moment we have to settle for Sondheim Sublime, a CD that concentrates on the serious side of the composer’s work, soulful Sondheim, reflective Sondheim, lovelorn Sondheim, bittersweet Sondheim.

 

Starting with the sexy, smoky, jazz-style ‘Sooner or Later’ from the movie Dick Tracy which won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1991, the unique way Errico extends the notes and uses the pause for dramatic effect is immediately apparent.

 

The rest of the songs, from Passion’s ‘Loving You’ to ‘The Miller’s Son’ from A Little Night Music and ‘Move On’ from Sunday in the Park With George, in Errico’s radiant hands reach new heights of vocal eloquence.

 

Sure, Sondheim classics like ‘Clowns’ and ‘Losing My Mind’ are there but also the less familiar ‘Isn’t He Something’ from Road Show, ‘I Remember’ from the made-for-TV Evening Primrose and ‘With So Little to Be Sure Of’ from Anyone Can Whistle, a rare Sondheim flop that lasted only nine performances on Broadway in 1964.

 

Accompanied only by Tedd Firth on piano, this is late-night Sondheim like you’ve never heard before. As the Wall Street Journal said: “The best all-Sondheim album ever recorded.” I’ll drink to that.

 

— Jeremy Chapman, Musical Theater Review

 

 

 

“92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “Sondheim: Wordplay

 

“Does anyone still wear a hat?” gloriously bellowed the magnetic Lesli Margherita as she wrapped up “the lightning round.” This was a portion where the cast took turns singing snippets of songs until a bell rang and another person took over. Though brief, this sequence was an exhilarating highlight of 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “Sondheim: Wordplay” The title refers to the concert’s purpose, focusing on Stephen Sondheim’s monumental command of lyric writing.

 

Co-hosts and co-writers Jack Feldman and Ted Chapin alternately offered insightful commentary, historical perspective and illustrative anecdotes. The program consisted of 27 complete songs including some that were cut from shows, a few that had alternate lyrics being heard for the first time, and rarities. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods were all well represented.

 

Wearing a slinky shimmering black dress, Ms. Margherita wowed with her Ethel Merman-style delivery of “The Arthur Laurents 80th Birthday Song,” a wicked special material number referencing Gypsy. The Mad Show’s sly Antônio Carlos Jobim-themed parody “The Boy From…” was another hilarious opportunity for Margherita. She also was alluring on “Anyone Can Whistle” and wrenching on “Losing My Mind.”

 

Melissa Errico as she appeared in 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “Sondheim: Wordplay” (March 30 – April 1, 2019) (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

“Come Play Whiz Me” was a saucy duet between Margherita and the beaming Christopher Fitzgerald. “I Never Do Anything Twice” from the 1976 film The Seven Per-Cent Solution was a mirthful masterpiece due to Mr. Fitzgerald’s sensational comic, singing and dancing talents. He gave a rat-a-tat “Multitude of Amy’s” which was cut from Company. The animated Fitzgerald’s “Free” had him in all his glory, reveling in the song’s verbal complexities as he partnered with Telly Leung.

 

Mr. Leung did a swell rendition of  “Love is in the Air” which was cut from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and was the concert’s opening number. That and “I Guess This is Goodbye” showed off Leung’s young leading man qualities. He did a stirring “Not a Day Goes By.” “Sorry-Grateful” was an engaging trio for him, Fitzgerald and Lewis Cleale. In a nod to the recent gender-bending London revival of Company, “Getting Married Today” had Mr. Cleale as the groom and Leung’s smoothly rapid singing of those swirling lyrics with Lauren Worsham chiming in.

 

“Marry Me a Little” originally cut from Company and years later reinstated exhibited Cleale’s soaring tenor as did his “Finishing The Hat.” “Move On” was a moving duet between him and Worsham.

 

Telly Leung and Lauren Worsham as they appeared in 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “Sondheim: Wordplay” (March 30 – April 1, 2019) (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

“Uptown/Downtown” cut from Follies found Worsham in a jaunty jazz mode. That song was succeeded by the one that replaced it, the acidic “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” which she executed with marvelous wryness. Her “Another Hundred People” was emotionally affective.  “On the Steps of The Palace” was spirited. A true rarity was “The Two of You.” This was a song Mr. Sondheim speculatively wrote in his early 20’s for the children’s television program Kukla, Fran and Ollie, but it was rejected.  Accompanied by puppets as Worsham tenderly sang, it was revealed to be a lovely gem.

 

“The Miller’s Son” was brilliantly performed by the eternally ravishing Melissa Errico who conveyed the cascade of sarcasm, idealism and pragmatism with flair while sitting on a piano. Ms. Errico’s “I Remember” from Evening Primrose was a wistful reverie and her first act closer “Send in the Clowns” was haunting. The furious patter of “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle was breathlessly realized and Passion’s “Loving You” was splendorous. Errico’s four numbers were like a wonderful mini-concert.

 

The finale was a majestic “Our Time” performed by the ensemble.

 

The company of 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “Sondheim: Wordplay” (March 30 – April 1, 2019) (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Music director Richard Carsey was on piano and was joined by Andy Einhorn, piano and Paul Pizzuti on drums & percussion. Their superb playing had an intimate quality that slightly emphasized the words over melody.

 

Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s direction melded the performers with expert physical placement sprinkled with occasional dance bits that made for lively presentation. The event’s visual verve was amplified by the imaginative projection design by Dan Scully. In addition to illustrative images there were projections of Sondheim’s handwritten and typed lyrics as well as stylized photographic views. These were all continually shown on the auditorium’s back wall, beautifully complementing the performers and the speakers.

 

No fits, no fights, no feuds

and no egos, Amigos, together!

 

was the lyric from “Together (Wherever We Go)” with its surprise fourth rhyme that perked up a depressed Cole Porter as Sondheim and Jule Styne played it for him in 1959. Sondheim points to this incident as perhaps the greatest event in his life. That consuming preoccupation for just the right words was manifestly conveyed by the lustrous 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “Sondheim: Wordplay.”

 

— Darryl Reilly, Theater Scene

 

 

 

 

 

Learning To Love Stephen Sondheim”

 

 

 

 

“Stephen Sondheim is America’s greatest living theatrical songwriter—but he’s not popular, and never has been. Part of the problem is that his songs are too lyrically and harmonically complex to suit the tastes of the average listener, in addition to which they tend to lack a clear-cut emotional profile. The look-both-ways-before-crossing ambivalence of a lyric like “Sorry/Grateful” (“You’re always wondering what might have been / Then she walks in”) is worlds away from the wholehearted view of romantic love that has traditionally been the stuff of pop-music success.

 

Just as important, though, is the fact that Mr. Sondheim is and has always been a theatrical composer, not a creator of free-standing songs. His songs exist to drive the plots and deepen the characterizations of the shows for which they are written, so much so that their meanings are often not fully clear when they’re performed outside the dramatic contexts of those shows. An oft-cited case in point is “Not While I’m Around.” If you don’t know “Sweeney Todd,” it sounds like the purest and most straightforward of love songs—but it’s sung by an innocent street urchin to a heartless criminal at whose uncaring hands he is unwittingly destined to die.

 

Taken together, these aspects of Mr. Sondheim’s work go a long way toward explaining why so few recitals of his songs have been recorded by top-tier pop and jazz performers. Judy Collins’s “A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim,” Jackie and Roy’s “A Stephen Sondheim Collection,” Cleo Laine’s “Cleo Sings Sondheim” and “Mandy Patinkin Sings Sondheim” come to mind, but after that, the choices grow thin on the ground. That’s why the release this month of Melissa Errico’s “Sondheim Sublime” (Ghostlight) is big news to those, myself among them, for whom his work has long spoken with the force of revelation. Not to put too fine a point on it, “Sondheim Sublime” is the best all-Sondheim album ever recorded, a program of 15 songs in which radiantly warm singing and sensitive, intelligent interpretation are tightly and inseparably entwined. Even if you’ve never felt at ease with Mr. Sondheim’s cool embrace of ambivalence, this album, accompanied with like sensitivity by Tedd Firth on piano, will show you what you’ve been missing.

 

A veteran musical-comedy performer who made an unforgettable impression earlier this season in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” Ms. Errico sings like an actor, illuminating every twist and turn in Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics. Listen, for example, to the unobtrusive yet incomparably vivid way in which she puts a separate spin on each of the varied similes out of which “I Remember” is constructed: “I remember leaves, / Green as spearmint, / Crisp as paper. / I remember trees, / Bare as coat racks, / Spread like broken umbrellas.” Yet to call her a “singing actor” is to miss the point, for her vocalism is as finished as her interpretations are thoughtful. You scarcely ever hear her kind of dead-center intonation and flawlessly controlled vibrato on Broadway—or anywhere else.

 

Ms. Errico’s personal story, as it happens, is no less interesting in its own right. After appearing on Broadway in six increasingly prominent roles that brought her to the attention of New York’s drama critics, she finally landed a plum: John Doyle cast her as Clara in his 2013 Classic Stage Company off-Broadway revival of Mr. Sondheim’s “Passion,” in which she gave a luminous performance that by all rights should have established her as a stage star. Then, without warning, she developed a vocal-chord hemorrhage that forced her to drop out of the show, after which she spent 106 days unable to sing or speak a word as she recovered from the microsurgery that ultimately saved her voice. Instead, she started a blog in which she chronicled with unsparing honesty her agonizingly slow return to vocal health, proving herself in the process to be as talented a writer as she is a singer.

 

Perhaps because “Passion” was the show that came so close to ending her stage career, I have a special liking for the performance of “Loving You” that is included on “Sondheim Sublime.” Unusually for Mr. Sondheim, “Loving You” is at once simple and startlingly direct in its articulation of the pivotal place of love in the singer’s life: “It gives me purpose, / Gives me voice, / To say to the world: / This is why I live. / You are why I live.” Accordingly, Ms. Errico sings it with a tender, unadorned simplicity that conceals her supreme artfulness: All you hear is understated yet intense feeling. I realize that Mr. Sondheim’s own art will never be for everyone—he asks too much of the listener—but each time I listen to “Sondheim Sublime,” it’s hard for me to see how anyone could resist his songs when they’re sung like this.”

 

— Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal

 

 

 

Feinstein's / 54 Below

November 3, 2018

 

Piano/Musical Director: Tedd Firth

Bass: Phil Palombi

Director: Robbie Rozelle

Percussion: Rex Benincasa

 

 

“The Sublime, in art, does not exactly refer to beauty. As it has been theorized by Edmund Burke, it has been defined as art that ‘refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation’. The kind of art that carries human emotions, and pushes them to their paroxysm. Sublime can be terrible, an instant fixated into the now, the forever, the moment that left your mouth agape. Associating it to Sondheim, as Melissa Errico did for the title of her newest album, and the release concerts that followed at 54 Below, is an invitation into a museum, to walk through those moments, to sit back, and just feel. Enjoy the terrible, let it take over you in waves, painting after painting, walking through a gallery.

 

Truly, there was something masterful about that night, something as breathtaking - as sublime as the fleeting nature of art. While put on record, those performances simply were a now that can not be replicated, a now for the stage, and even behind jazzy arrangements, the genius stays, and each song is a story, each song is a new painting, a new moment trapped into air, pausing life as if everything outside the room, outside those couple of minutes had stopped. But overall, it’s one big painting that faces us, each song being a dot, as the Dot she once played, and they paint an actress, in all her versatility, a woman with many sides, and a mesmerizing voice.

 

Surely, as one would have expected, the night was full of longing, a technically perfect Send in the Clowns that might not have worked in context of the show - just too perfect - but that still carried that much, that still scarred to just listen to. A different take, one for Miss Errico, that would only fit her. Another one strikes, a most haunting Losing My Mind, from Follies, that can only have you wish for yet another revival, just so more people can experience this live. As with every time music started here, time stopped, but ghosts filled her eyes, and the room. A painting on her face, a painting in the air, a moment of sublime.

 

Pace picked up, for sure, the night had opened smooth, bubbly, a glass of champagne in her voice with that Sooner or Later as a welcome. Her Miller’s Son, also, gave us to see another side of her, the eternal ingénue that might always live in her gestures, in her clear soprano, the kind of ingénue you just don’t question. But she’s grown, Miss Errico, since her days as Cosette or Eliza, and it’s a mother we can hear, with the wisdom she wishes to pass on, when she disappears behind Children Will Listen, not as the Witch, but as a moment. As a lesson you can’t help but swallow and learn. And there is gentleness, in her Not While I’m Around, and love, so much, for the children she speaks of jokingly, for a next generation who has to be taught about art. No wonder it is with Children and Art that she closed the evening, and her album, an homage to that Dot she played, maybe, but a piece of her, or art, that it seemed impossible not to carry home.

And it’s what this magical night came to be, a series of moments. A series of hitting pause on the remote, of seeing the air move in front of you, as you breathe, as stories come alive. Something to remind you of how fleeting each second is, while filling them up. Of the magic of live arts, for it’s only because they end that they have so much impact. Like so many moments in life. Something scary, terrible, yet beautiful. Something sublime.”

 

— Lottie Ballanger, Hi! Drama

 

 

 

 

“The best recorded Sondheim recital I’ve ever heard, gorgeously and intelligently sung, and accompanied with perfect taste by the Tedd Firth trio.”

 

— Will Friedwald,  The Wall Stret Journal

 

 

 

 

“The true mark of a prodigious songwriter and storyteller (Ms. Errico) is the ability to touch every emotional chord. . . fulfilled and surpassed by each; that warm, gentle purr of vibrato that invades her exquisite delivery ever present. Ms. Errico engages, grabs and holds no matter what Sondheim song falls from her lips – “Losing My Mind,” “Send in the Clowns,” “Marry Me a Little”…she’s in the moment – honest and open with appropriate charm or passion or excitement bringing her own brand of humor, astuteness and playfulness (“Isn’t He Something”)."

 

— Theater Pizzazz

 

 

“Melissa Errico has that very rare combination of beauty, humor, graceful motion on stage and, of course, the marvelous sound of her voice. I have been a fan since first seeing her star in Finian’s Rainbow, and she continues to grow as a cabaret performer. She shows great confidence on stage and her off-the cuff-remarks are often hilariously funny. Her Broadway acting experience came through on an especially dramatic “No More.” She convinced me that she was losing her mind in her superfast “Losing My Mind.” Sondheim has said that life is a struggle between duty and desire, and this was shown in her medley “Not a Day Goes By”/“Marry Me a Little.” Her love of Sondheim’s work comes through in every song, and her excellent enunciation makes each of Sondheim’s lyrics especially meaningful.”

 

—Cabaret Scenes

 

 

“The Sondheim Album of the Year:

Melissa Errico’s “Sondheim Sublime” combines all she knows about beautiful singing with all she knows about making words count. And not just in familiar numbers

(“Send in the Clowns”) but in oddballs like “Isn’t He Something?” Isn’t he indeed.”

 

— The New York Times,  2018 Holiday Gift Guide

 

 

 

“Identifying a visceral reaction helped Errico hone in on select numbers from the composer’s expansive oeuvre, uniting the album’s tracks not just by writer and performer, but through their wisdoms…the [album] offers healing, special, and loving lessons that, for Errico, speak to her own life experiences and, in a larger context, current climates. Pieces like “Children and Art” and “No More” illuminate a maternal sense of protection, while “Sooner or Later” and “The Miller’s Son” elicit a determination to find pleasure in bleak times.”

 

— Playbill

 

 

“[Errico] has a unique gift for emphasizing the warm and emotional side of Mr. Sondheim’s complex, aria-like numbers, and for taking lyrics written for specific characters and specific scenes, and transforming them into something incredibly intimate and personal - with, at the same time, sentiments that are universal. We may have listened to 10,000 different versions of “Send in the Clowns” over the last 45 years or so, but trust me, this is one interpretation, and an entire album, that the whole world really needs.”

 

— Will Friedwald,   The Wall Stret Journal

 

 

 

“A delectable assortment of songs by the songwriter extraordinaire…on Sondheim Sublime Errico’s perfect phrasing, along with graceful, thoughtful arrangements by Tedd Firth and others, brings heartfelt emotion and rich vibrancy to over a dozen of Sondheim’s songs, ranging from a gently jazzy take on “I Remember” from Evening Primrose to a terrifically ferocious rendition of “The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music. She and Firth sensitively mine the torch song roots of “Losing My Mind” from Follies, and “Isn't He Something?” from Road Show allows Errico to demonstrate her unique ability to infuse her always lovely vocals with a smile. With “Goodbye for Now,” a song too rarely recorded written for the movie Reds, Errico captures both the ethereal nature of the melody and the wistfulness of the lyric, [and her] deeply moving interpretation of “Children and Art” from Sunday in the Park With George is

genuinely sublime.”

 

— Bway Tunes

 

 

 

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