Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Coming back for seconds:
on Sondheim Unplugged & West Side Story film
Reviews by Rob Lester

(2-CD SET)
Yellow Sound Label
CD, digital

Get ready and get set for a new set of performances showcasing the material of a superb craftsman. Released this week on the master's birthdate, Sondheim Unplugged: (The NYC Sessions), Volume Two is a very rewarding, very full (44 tracks) "fix" for fans of the composer-lyricist. Beg, buy, borrow, or stream it, and you may be tempted to let it play on a loop all day from "Dawn" until "The Last Midnight" (two of its song titles referencing, respectively: Lisa Sabin's appealing rendition of something written for a movie that never got made; Kristy Cates biting into Into the Woods' apocalyptic rage). And the variety of emotions ranges from cup-runneth-over Passion of "Happiness" to pure "Agony" (with, respectively, Ereni Sevasti's luscious and lusty vocal and spot-on comical interplay between Jeff Kready and Tally Sessions).

The repertoire in these studio recordings samples many scores, the less often heard tunes as well as the "usual suspects like "Losing My Mind," sung with real vulnerability by cabaret veteran Natalie Douglas. There are particularly character-specific things that are rarely done outside a cast recording and songs cut from shows, too. In those categories, one of the highlights is "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir," the hair tonic sales pitch that was in Sweeney Todd; it's very well "sold" by the enormously entertaining Jacob Hoffman. Another treat is Natalie Arneson and Donna Vivino's masterfully timed, venom-laced duet, "There's Always a Woman" (cut from Anyone Can Whistle).

Happily, the set is not overloaded with raise-the-roof showstoppers or raise-your-blood-pressure numbers filled with anguish. Lucia Spina's spunky and splashy way with "Smile, Girls," cut from Gypsy, is right on target. I don't find much that seems to miss the mark or is miscast; you may miss a favorite song's more definitive performance because it's so lodged in your musical theatre memory bank. I'd quibble with one or two things that strike me as too mannered, have some moments of struggle, and one instance of being distractingly overly attentive to diction.

As is the tradition in the long-running live concert series of the same name (now monthly again in New York City at Feinstein's/54 Below), accompaniment is just a piano. With the sometimes very detailed and decorative architectures, longtime series accompanist Joseph Goodrich is a sturdy musical hand (well, two hands), especially with very muscular and rhythmic pieces that build strongly. He provides quite the engine. In musical style, accompaniment figures, and tempo, most of what we hear here is quite loyal to their theatrical blueprints. A distinctive trademark of the live programs that generated the recording project is the participation of veterans of productions of Sondheim shows or major concert events and others with frequent-flyer miles in the nightclub series. In this edition, reclaiming their "I was there first" territories are Sarah Rice, the original Johanna of Sweeney Todd, with her character's song to the caged "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" and original A Little Night Music cast member George Lee Andrews, who played the butler, rescuing his cut song "Silly People" as he did once upon a long ago in the recorded concert Sondheim: A Musical Tribute. Jim Walton of Merrily We Roll Along rolls back through time for "Our Time," this time as a solo instead of being "just" one of the main singers.

The Merrily score is also represented by Manu Narayan's idiosyncratic "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," revisiting his 2019 portrayal of Charley. He's one of several who'd handled a current song assignment when playing the character in a full production. For example, there's Teri Ralston, who, as performer and director, has several Sondheim shows under her belt. Now she gets to belt "Some People" as she did when she portrayed Rose in a summer stock production of Gypsy. She's feisty and zestful. Emily Skinner retraces her steps from her trip Into the Woods as the Witch with her rendition of "Children Will Listen"; the arrangement by Ronald Spoto benefits from a slightly-slower-than-usual tempo. The cautionary lyric resonates with in-the-moment focus, the intentions measured and never offered lightly. Careful are the things she'll say.

I find it especially intriguing to hear the fruits of insight and frequent exposure when alumni of original Broadway casts take on numbers that were part of the fabric of their shows, but were sung by other characters. To add another dimension, each was written for a co-star of the opposite gender. Now, instead of reacting as Little Red Ridinghood when the Wolf stalked her with "Hello, Little Girl," Danielle Ferland, who long ago went Into the Woods for the encounter, gets to pounce and provoke as she becomes the Wolf in a canny manner. Then there's George Dvorsky, dipping deeply and with dignity into Passion's "I Wish I Could Forget You" with rue and angst.

Two selections from Sunday in the Park with George for the character of Dot feel especially theatrical and committed because you really get the sense that the "Dot du jour" is singing to Georges and wishes he'd acknowledge her presence and feelings. They are Julie Reyburn resourcefully charging through "Everybody Loves Louis," and Christina Bianco, finding a bevy of nuances of frustration with the title song (album/concert producer Phil Geoffrey Bond handily takes on Georges' spoken scolds).

The flood of recordings featuring Stephen Sondheim's work is one I've always been glad to swim in: multiple cast albums of many of the scores, all the vocal and instrumental collections by single artists, and multi-performer sets like this Unplugged series. If there is such a thing as suffering from Severe Sondheim Song Surfeit, I don't expect to be so diagnosed. I echo the insatiable sentiments in the pizzazzy piece that's part of this primo package: "More," from the film Dick Tracy, gleefully gushed by Courter Simmons. "If you've got a little, why not a lot?/ Add and bit and it'll get to be an oodle/ Every jot and tittle adds to the pot/ Soon you've got the kit as well as the caboodle/ More! More!"

More is indeed on the schedule with Volume 3 set for release on the first day of June. Yes, that's when "something's coming, something good, if I can wait," as Mr. Sondheim wrote for West Side Story.

Hollywood Records
CD, digital, limited edition vinyl

All these years and tears later, the songs and story of West Side Story still pack a punch. While the vocal performances heard on the remake's soundtrack may not always hit with an impact as piercing and potent as felt in stage cast recordings, this one is a hit with me. The vocals have their own kind of lower-flame intensity in delivering the inventive Stephen Sondheim lyrics and indelible Leonard Bernstein melodies. Some renditions here are more modest and just gentler. Musicals on the screen can invite a more conversational, low-key kind of singing, with the "close-up" communication analogous to the camera's close-ups with emotions shown in eyes and facial expressions. Thus, this feels appropriately intimate. If it's big-voiced, soaring singing you seek, there are other versions of the score, including one with opera singers, helmed by its composer.

Projecting the impulsiveness, frustrations, and limited perspective of youth is key in making us believe our ears and hearts to let us accept any West Side Story company. Playing Maria, Rachel Zegler actually was still in her late teens during the filming. (She'd played the role in her high school production.) She is impressive here, in her shimmeringly lovely singing and acting the lyrics, convincingly lovestruck in the ballads and buoyant in "I Feel Pretty." As Tony, Ansel Elgort's singing could have more urgency and it is not robust, but the absence of guile and glibness suggests sufficient innocence. (He turned 28 this month; he was cast in 2018 and filming was done the next year.) His voice does "feel pretty" in the notes where that really counts. Contrasting with these more callow personalities, Ariana DeBose aptly handles the assertiveness and more fiery personality traits requisite for Anita, even if she is rather raw in her rage, shout-singing the early part of "A Boy Like That." Other cast members playing the various gang members are more "fine" than ferocious or sarcastic, their characterizations not as sharp and cutting as the switchblades the plot has them carrying.

It's always a welcome wallow to spend time hearing these polished early-career Sondheim lyrics that capture attitudes and situations so superbly, whether the matter at hand is blossoming new romance or blistering old hurts. Then there's the blessedly bountiful Bernstein creations. Including a nine-minute montage played over the end credits, this particular recording, almost 80 minutes in length, is generous in its instrumental offerings. Largely a respectful homage to their original 1957 theatre ancestry (as opposed to the larger orchestra of the 1961 film), it's all magnificently realized, bursting with energy and attention to detail, each motif crisp, tension feeling fresh, balancing hope and heartbreak. If your introduction to the score was from the pre-CD Jurassic period of Broadway and motion picture cast albums, you didn't get to relish all the dance music that was added to their CD reissues or was available as "Symphonic Dances" on Bernstein-themed vinyl.

Also present are other instrumental swaths, such as a tender treatment of the "Maria" melody that adds to that reverie, to lead into the "Tonight" duet segment rooted in Romeo and Juliet's famous balcony scene.

While some non-clone song interpretations and the welcome, commanding presence of the orchestra-only segments are draws, they are not the only new elements making this West Side Story more than just the same old story for the more cautious collector. Perhaps most notable is a major highlight for true poignancy: the decision to reassign "Somewhere" to Rita Moreno, the 1961 movie's Anita, playing a newly conceived character. This is not so startlingly new in every respect, as earlier stage productions had two different female cast members sing offstage, recent revivals had a boy soprano handling it, and Rita Moreno sang it live in televised appearances–including a duet with Wayne Newton in the 1970s–and on two tracks on her 2015 recording titled Una Vez Más (once with Sondheim's words and once in a Spanish-language version). This recording's sole offering in the Spanish tongue is an item not from the score, but an effective a capella rendition of Puerto Rico's traditional official song, "La Borinqueña," led by David Alvarez in the role of gang leader Bernardo.

An aficionado of West Side Story will also be aware of various versions and tweaks of Sondheim lyrics. Some lines of dialogue are also incorporated here and there, and this film reverted to the stage version of "Gee, Officer Krupke"'s text, rather than the tamer 1961 film alternate. "America," with both the female and male young Puerto Rican characters, switches out several put-downs of Puerto Rico for more digs about the poor treatment of its people in the prejudice-prone U.S.A. ("Buying on credit is so nice/ One look at us and they charge twice"). The character of Tony loses a chance to sing some of "Somewhere," but is prominently added to a pre-rumble urge to keep things "Cool."

To sum it up, this West Side Story soundtrack rekindles appreciation for a classic musical and its passions.