By itself, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by legendary Broadway conductor Paul Gemignani, playing Sondheim is something special. Add in multi Tony Award winners — and celebrated Sondheim interpreters — Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, George Hearn and Michael Cerveris, and you have an evening made in musical theatre heaven.
This concert, billed as A Little Sondheim Music, was a reunion of sorts for the four — each has starred in multiple Ravinia productions of Sondheim works over the past ten years (Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George, Passion, Anyone Can Whistle and Gypsy). I was lucky to catch nearly all of these performances (except Sweeney, as it was before I moved to Chicago), and I’ve previously captured my memories here. These events were the highlight of my summers. So it was a special night for me to see these peerless performers back on Ravinia’s Pavilion stage to recreate some of the roles and numbers from those six iconic shows.
Things started off with a brassy overture, highlighting some of Sondheim’s showier numbers, including the overture to Merrily We Roll Along (which director Lonny Price starred in on Broadway in 1981) and “Side by Side” from Company. Then a familiar vamp started, and the four actors strolled onstage performing an aptly-selected “Together (Wherever We Go)” from Gypsy. (In a bright spot in the loosely directed evening, after Hearn sang “Whatever the row I hoe, you hoe,” LuPone fired back, “Who yah callin’ a ho?”)
Then some awkward and underrehearsed banter followed, where Cerveris warned the audience they may have trouble remembering those tricky Sondheim lyrics (they — specifically Cerveris — did, but only briefly). Cerveris then launched into “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George, and then was joined by McDonald for a soaring “Move On.”
Selections from Night Music followed, where Hearn and LuPone demonstrated their easy-going chemistry in “You Must Meet My Wife.” As part of this set, Audra and LuPone paired up for “Every Day a Little Death” — a number neither of them performed before, with LuPone as bitter Charlotte and McDonald as 18 year-old Anne. Joking that she was “getting younger by the minute,” McDonald showcased her remarkable range in “The Glamorous Life,” a song sung by the teenage Fredrika in the film version of the show. (Seriously — this is a breathtaking performance. Watch it here.) LuPone also sang a rather sullen “Send in the Clowns.” Not my favorite rendition of the number, but a worthy one.
Some other bright spots: after an introduction from McDonald, LuPone (who, for those interested, is back to sporting a sassy pageboy haircut) came back out to rip through “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and got the biggest hand of the evening. Audra offered a beautifully wise and understated performance of “Anyone Can Whistle,” making me wish she had the opportunity to sing some of the bigger Sondheim roles last night — such as Fosca or Desiree.
Representing Passion, Cerveris and McDonald canoodled as best they could on stools singing “Happiness.” LuPone then turned on the waterworks for a raw (if rushed) performance of “I Wish I Could Forget You.”
Sweeney closed out the evening, with Hearn (who played the title role in the original Broadway production and with LuPone at Ravinia in 2001) and Cerveris (who played the role on Broadway in 2005, opposite LuPone) teamed up for an amazing “Pretty Women,” with Hearn playing the Judge and Cerveris as Sweeney. Then, LuPone sauntered out, congratulating her Sweeneys on a job well done, and the three of them launched into “A Little Priest,” with Cerveris and Hearn sharing Sweeney responsibilities and LuPone masterfully handling the duo. (Cerveris, Hearn and LuPone originally performed this rendition of “Priest” at another Sondheim birthday gala at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall earlier this year — which will air on PBS in November.)
And, before we knew it, the gang concluded with “Side by Side” from Company and the evening was over. The audience applauded for more, but no encore was given. Which amazed me since they each have a million Sondheim songs in their back pocket. How hard is it for LuPone to drag out her “Ladies Who Lunch” or McDonald to fire up some “Children Will Listen”?
That was the biggest grumble from the otherwise buzzing crowd: at only 65 minutes total running time, we wanted more! More! MORE!
Let’s hope this isn’t the end for Sondheim celebrating at Ravinia. How about Into the Woods, with LuPone as the Witch, Cerveris and McDonald as the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, and Hearn as the Narrator/Old Man? Hmm?
(Welz Kauffman, are you listening? “Give us more to see,” as Dot in Sunday in the Park would say.)