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A Bed and Chair: A New York Love Affair
Stephen Sondheim statess that his lyrics are short plays that come to life with music. With just a bed and a chair as props, this Encores! Special Event presents four jazz and Broadway players, Cyrille Aimee, Jeremy Jordan, Norm Lewis and Bernadette Peters. They interact as two New York couples maneuvering their way through love and loss. With Aimée and Jordan playing the young romancers and Lewis and Peters as the older, more seasoned pair, the stories flow from the intoxication of first love through ups, downs and the disenchanting breakup. Not surprisingly, the ending is bittersweet, foreseen in "I Wish I Could Forget You."
As an elegant addendum, four dancers, Meg Gillentine, Tyler Hanes, Grasan Kingsberry and Elizabeth Parkinson shadow the singers as sensual alter egos. Setting the New York scene are Steve Channon's non-stop projections of the city. With David Loud conducting, the orchestra accompanies Sondheim's lush complex melodies with accessibly conventional jazz, including Marsalis' occasional moody or witty trumpet comments. Some segments are exemplary, others less satisfying.
When Bernadette Peters first enters in a bright rose dress, there is no doubt that the star has arrived and she is in top form. After the first few notes of "Broadway Baby," she spies the "follow spot" in the center of the stage and squeezes all the juice from the song with sly pacing. She shows her comedy flair in "Buddy's Blues," as well as the sarcastic, "Isn't He Something?"
If one moment stands out, it is Peters' and Lewis in a stirring rendition of "With So Little to Be Sure Of" with Marsalis shining on his trumpet solo. As the cast gathers and faces the back of the stage studying the Manhattan cityscape, Peters turns to the audience, champagne glass in hand, and declares, "I'd like to propose a toast." With her shrewd phrasing, "The Ladies Who Lunch"continue imbibing with intoxicated reminiscences of "Agony,""Can That Boy Fox-Trot"and "Uptown/Downtown,"in a interpretive, sassy arrangement by Richard DeRosa.
Norm Lewis ( Porgy and Bess) brings poise and sensitivity to his rendition of "I Remember" and "So Many People." Also sumptuous with his rich baritone are "Loving You" and "Someone is Waiting". Vocally impressive, Jeremy Jordan ( Newsies ), performs a compelling "Giants in the Sky" but I was jarred by his version of "Losing My Mind," where he ogles his IPhone photos like a teen in puppy love.
Cyrille Aimee, winner of the Montreux Jazz Festival's International Vocal Competition, brings the only jazz vocals to the group with natural syncopation and easy scat. Sherman Irby's arrangement of "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" is pure fun. Also effective are "What More Do I Need?" and "Live Alone and Like It." Aimée stands out as a sprightly and technically deft addition to the more theatrically trained group.
Richard DeRosa arranged a lovely overture from Merrily We Roll Along. From there, John Doyle keeps the pace of singers, dancers and video projections flowing, although the Manhattan scenes that are beautiful, but often distracting. The set by John Lee Beatty is spare but evocatively lighted by Ken Billington. With everyone on stage, including the 15 instrumentalists, Parker Esse's choreography unfortunately restricts the four dancers to repetitive extensions and ballroom glides. In the few moments when there is space available just for dancing, as in "Who's That Woman?" and "Send In the Clowns", the result is striking. Ann Hould-Ward designed coordinating color combinations for costumes that swing and move, although Peters, in her binding rose-colored dress, tends to tug it down as she toddles along.
Sondheim's songs were not written to be taken out of context of the original shows. This unusual collaboration of his music sparked with intriguing jazzy dissonance and brassy spikes at just the right spots, celebrates the authoritative musicians on all sides.