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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
JASON ROBERT BROWN WITH STEPHEN SONDHEIM
at Town Hall

A STAR-STUDDED NIGHT
By JEREMY GERARD

  Ph: Erika Kapin

A packed house filled Town Hall on June 24 for an evening of music hosted by Jason Robert Brown, with Stephen Sondheim as his special guest. The mere announcement of the pairing prompted a run on the famed hall’s box office, as much for the promise of Sondheim’s participation (beyond the usual wave of the hand at one testimonial or another) as it was for the cause, which was to raise money for Brady, the non-profit devoted to “common-sense gun laws.”
 
The evening was structured much like the monthly concerts that Brown hosts at his East Village artistic home, SubCulture. Indeed this was his 50th such concert and third co-hosted with the venue on behalf of Brady. An engaging and guileless showman, Brown uses the concerts to play with fellow musicians, test out material and please the devotees who have followed him from The Last Five Years through Honeymoon in Vegas and his sensational albums. The latest of those is How We React and How We Recover, a brilliant song collection that includes his own haunting yawp of protest, “A Song About Your Gun,” which he would play before the night was through.
 
To certify the occasion as unmissable, Brown recruited Katrina Lenk, Shoshana Bean, Joshua Henry, Rob McClure and an unadvertised special guest, Lin-Manuel Miranda, to serenade the composer-lyricist whom New York Magazine famously once suggested might just be God. It hardly need be said there were no agnostics in the audience for this service of worship.
 
Brown and a substantial orchestra conducted by his wife, Georgia Stitt, got things off to a start with his own reminiscence of playing writer Charley Kringas in a French Woods (that’s the Juilliard of summer performing-arts camps) production of Merrily We Roll Along when he was 16. He’d seen many productions of the show, he averred, including a recent Encores! presentation in which Charley was played by Lin-Manuel Miranda. “But I have to tell you,” he said, “I am Charley.” And to prove it, he sang “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” from that show. “I’ve been rehearsing this song since I was 16.”
 
As he began the number, which is about the impact of success on Charley’s dying partnership with composer-turned-Hollywood knaker Frank, who should spring out from the wings but Miranda himself. Once the hollering and whooping subsided, they completed the song together. Miranda drew raucous laughs (and a mock poisoned dart) when his Frank told Brown’s Frank, “It sounds like you think making money is bad for an artist.” Brown followed with his own ode on the siren song of success, “Melinda” (from the new album) and a jazz-seasoned cover of the haunting “Children and Art,” from Sunday in the Park With George.
 
He then brought out Lenk, resplendent in a metallic silver and burnt-orange wraparound, for several songs, including “Cassandra” from The Connector, a JRB work-in-progress, and a ripping “Last Midnight” from Into the Woods.
 
One of the evening’s most memorable moments (the bar was admittedly high) was Lenk’s soaring duet with Henry on Sunday in the Park’s anthemic “Move On.” I’ve seen many performances of the song, going back to Sunday’s Broadway premiere in 1984, and none surpassed this one in emotional and vocal power.
 
That seemed like a cue, and it was: Sondheim was accompanied onstage by a lengthy standing ovation and Beatles-concert-worthy hysteria. Sitting down at the piano (and sensitively accompanied on his keyboard by the host), Sondheim performed a softly elegiac rendition of Merrily’s “Good Thing Going.”
 
Brown and Sondheim then pot-latched, showering one another with praise. (“It’s about time you felt awkward on stage,” Sondheim remarked, to huzzahs.) Sondheim revealed that he’d played a serial killer in a college production of Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall but added that he didn’t like performing in public either as an actor or musician.
 
Then, in a move that would have earned a 100% Fresh from Rotten Tomatoes, Brown played a song from his Parade, whose melody he’d sent to Sondheim absent notes regarding time signature or lyrics, challenging him to write his own harmonic underpinnings. Brown played his arrangement before they both played Sondheim’s, which was so clearly the work of a composer whose musical vocabulary is edgier and more dangerous. You probably had to be there in order to understand just how thrilling that exchange was.
 
Lenk’s vocal gift, an irresistible mix of fragility and power, got a full reveal with “Not While I’m Around,” from Sweeney Todd. Another Brown favorite, Bean, sang “The Next 10 Minutes,” from The Last Five Years. The concert concluded with the upbeat “Wait’ll You See What’s Next,” from the new album, and a stirring Brown solo of his “All Things in Time.” It’s worth a salute to the orchestrator who rebuilt several of the songs specifically for this concert; the arrangements were dazzling. The orchestrator was Jason Robert Brown.
 

The event, Brown announced to cheers, raised over $300,000. You can make a donation to Brady at bradyunited.org.

 


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