As Kern and DeSylva wrote in their timeless standard, one must always "look for the silver lining." Sometimes even in disappointment, comes something wonderful, which was certainly the case with the magnificent impromptu showcase that occurred at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa on Saturday, October 29.
A mixed blessing if there ever was one, the evening's original agenda—which was devised mostly as a one-on-one candid conversation between host Michael Kerker (ASCAP's Director of Musical Theatre) and legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim—instead morphed into an enchanting 100-minute expanded tribute concert featuring two veteran Broadway powerhouses in their own right: Tony Award winners Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes-Mitchell.
A year in the planning, Stephen Sondheim: In Conversation was supposed to feature a somewhat rare opportunity for a live audience to hear first-hand testimony from Sondheim himself about his remarkable life and extraordinary body of work. The cherry on this delectable Sundae On The Stage With Stephen was that a pair of Broadway superstars will also be on hand to demonstrate a few of those select ditties live—which would have been a total of just six songs between them.
Alas, mother nature intervened on these plans and dropped a powerful snowstorm on New York City, causing several East Coast flights—including Sondheim's—to be grounded. Ticket holders of the sold-out event were e-mailed that though Sondheim was unable to make the show, they were still welcome to show up to a free "bonus concert" (Kerker assured the audience that the show as it was intended—with Sondheim—will be rescheduled for a later date). So, as the saying goes in the unpredictable world of live theater, the show must go on... and, boy, did it!
Instead of shuttering the evening's itinerary altogether, good sports Ebersole and Stokes-Mitchell—along with musical director (and piano accompanist) Tedd Firth—hastily "cobbled together" a new program within the span of just two-plus hours earlier that afternoon. The resulting "accidental" concert ended up being one of the most polished, flawless concerts the Center's Cabaret Series has ever produced. The two incredible performers—both of whom are blessed with dramatic flair, impeccable comic timing, and, of course, amazing voices—traded stirring solos and shared superb duets.
And instead of Sondheim himself providing disclosures, Kerker provided plenty of interesting background information and intriguing anecdotes to explain many of the behind-the-scenes motivations and origins of Sondheim's songs in between the performances. Hilariously, the backstage story of how the concert came together also became part of the show, as well as a few personal recollections from Ebersole and Stokes-Mitchell themselves about Sondheim touched their lives. (Neither has been in an actual Sondheim show on Broadway, though Stokes-Mitchell has done a multi-day stint as Sweeney Todd in Washington D.C. before, while Ebersole has auditioned with and for Sondheim early in her career).
Though he was physically not there, Sondheim's spirit pretty much hovered in the room like an omniscient higher power. They even set out a spot-lit empty chair across from Kerker in his honor, which Ebersole humorously pointed out as a gesture akin to "holding a place for him... like Elijah."
At one point, even before the evening's revised program began, Kerker surprised the audience by introducing a familiar booming voice from the heavens: Sondheim himself! Speaking via speakerphone from his snowed-in home in New York, the musical theater god welcomed the patrons at the sold-out concert hall and apologized for his weather-related absence. Kerker even briefly lobbed a few questions his way, including one about mentoring younger, up-and-coming musical theater composers just as he was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein III. "I've never met a writer who was satisfied with their work," offers Sondheim. "Actually, let me rephrase that: I've never met a good writer who was satisfied with their work." He wasn't kidding when he assured the crowd that he was leaving the evening in very capable hands.
The spectacular musical performances themselves offered a full evening's worth of beautifully-rendered Sondheim classics that only barely scratched the surface of the composer's true genius. Wowing the audience right from the start, the show opened with the pair doing an adorable duet on "You Must Meet My Wife" from Sondheim's last huge revival A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (Sondheim currently has another hit on Broadway, the revival of FOLLIES). This was followed by a pair of songs from ANYONE CAN WHISTLE: Stokes-Mitchell on the tongue-twisting "Everybody Says Don't" and Ebersole on the beautiful title song, which, I must say, was hands down the best version of the song I have ever heard. Just marvelous. (Fun fact courtesy of trivia-maven Kerker: ANYONE CAN WHISTLE which closed after just 9 performances in 1964 featured Angela Lansbury in her Broadway debut. Jerry Herman caught her in the show and later famously cast her in MAME which led to her first Tony Award)