Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Maury Yeston's song cycle and two sets of Sondheim songs
Reviews by Rob Lester

The calendar inching us to December is an apt cue to turn to December Songs, with Victoria Clark taking on Maury Yeston's one-character song cycle (whereas last week marked the first anniversary of the passing of Stephen Sondheim). Manhattan's 54 Below is the site for Liz Callaway's act, captured live; the same venue has long hosted the multi-performer Sondheim Unplugged shows and a third studio-recorded set, with many alumni, has arrived. (The two releases have some choices in common.)

PS Classics
CD, Digital

A meditative melancholy landscape in music can be an enlightening place to visit, but I don't always want to renew my passport. Sure, I can allow myself to willingly wallow in a good cry and know the value of catharsis when songs of sorrow pull me in and drag me down. Still, I approached the arrival of another version of Maury Yeston's song cycle "December Songs" with hesitation, remembering how other recordings felt largely awash with tears and the ache of loneliness. The saga could be quite the slog. But now loneliness is balanced by lushness and a strength with this reconceived December Songs for Voice and Orchestra–yes, a 37-piece orchestra, sweeping and swirling and at times almost sagaciously comforting. The solo voice this time is an especially glorious one, with Broadway's Victoria Clark as the character reeling from the pain of a break-up, yet projecting as much potential strength as struggle. Oh, yes the wounds are still in evidence, but there's less self-pity or navel-gazing. Clouds of hopelessness give way to wistful acceptance about the need to process, accept, and move on to healing.

The legato lines in the higher-range sections of the soprano singing are especially elegant, from the opening, the evocative "December Snow," to full-circle moments at the end, the evidence of recovery in "What a Relief" that includes more resolve when reprising "Please Let's Not Even Say Hello." The approach to the material and Victoria Clark's graceful sound make the 10-number work redolent of the tradition of formal art songs when words are most poetic. But since many rhymes and language choices are on the direct, simpler side, the style is not so distractingly distancing. (Aural beauty here is not synonymous with cold precision.) There's a more bittersweet balance, with a mature outlook and a wider world view as well as being able to look to a foreseeable future.

Maury Yeston's project, modeled on "Winterreise," Franz Schubert's mostly minor-key settings of 24 poems, commissioned for Carnegie Hall, followed its classical ancestor's mood, setting, and minimalism of just piano accompaniment for a voice. Like the character in question, December Songs could be all about feeling bereft with a bleak outlook, a mournful/haunting piano making the "accompaniment" stark, underlining the loneliness. (Stearns Matthews, the rare male vocalist to take on this material, also was an exception in that his recording adds some other instruments in mostly subtle support.) But this grand orchestra and its attractively busy details makes the song cycle a whole new ball game. Conducted by Ted Sperling and scored by Larry Hochman, the orchestra itself becomes a formidable companion, co-witness, an unshakable wealth of memories and awareness challenging reflexive denial or misinterpretations. It is the resilient life force or the majesty of Nature itself, most emphatically illustrated in instrumentations on "By the River."

In this rich orchestral revamp of December Songs, especially with the thoughtful interpretations by Victoria Clark, the dark is offset by letting us see more than just glimmers of light.

Working Girl Records
CD, Digital

Throughout the years, there's always been a glow and warmth in the voice and persona of Liz Callaway, who made her Broadway debut in the 1981 original production of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, in a role a long way from a starring one; she was in the ensemble–with a grand total of two solo lines to sing. For other projects soon to come, she graced more Sondheim material, and by now there have been numerous rewarding recordings of her bright sound and directness gracing the writer's oeuvre. Now, after years of those sprinkled samples, there's a full, live nightclub set documented: To Steve with Love: Liz Callaway Celebrates Sondheim. And, all the youthful, open, sparkling qualities are very much intact here. To quote the included "Old Friends" number from Merrily...: "Time goes by, everything else keeps changing."

Given that this is a memory-driven valentine about past opportunities to sing Sondheim and recalling other personal favorites, it is understandable that there are re-dos of six numbers already preserved on disc by the artist and may well be in the collections of fans, many from releases that were not Callaway solo sets. But there's plenty more, as well as anecdotes that put things in fond perspective. (There's a fair amount of talk, but it's mostly tracked separately if you want to skip over it upon repeat listenings to the full act.)

What might also feel overly familiar to some Sondheim-drenched listeners preferring some surprise are the accompaniment figures that generally take the loyally conservative "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach, with Alex Rybeck's driving piano as the trio's work economically and conservatively delivers the "bones" of musical settings honoring their Broadway imprints. Leave it to Liz Callaway with her acting skills and radiant affect to make so much "same old" sound dew-drop fresh and seemingly in the moment.

I suppose it's more appropriate to be cautious and uber-respectful, and tap into nostalgia, but with a taboo on tinkering, in what amounts to a tribute and embrace of music "Like It Was," to quote another title from the aforementioned 1981 project where she met longtime music director Rybeck. She was the lead female's understudy; understandably, there's relish and insight when approaching these selections and "Our Time" this time. (No, she never got to go on for a performance, but sang the songs from the audience during some rehearsals when the star was on vocal rest.)

There are spoken remembrances of participation in the 1985 concert version of Follies, cast as the younger Sally, segueing to a lovely rendition of one of the numbers for the older version of that character, "In Buddy's Eyes," and something written for one of the male leads, "The Road You Didn't Take." The inherent sunniness of the singer's timbre and her disarmingly honest sensibility keep the angst, fragility and denial of the original context at bay, at least in a cabaret setting. Thus, they are not full-throttle devastatingly heartbreaking, but well worth the emotion-stirrings. The Callaway résumé also includes playing Petra the maid in A Little Night Music in 1986 in Buffalo, New York, cuing an assured handling of the flurry of words in that character's solo, "The Miller's Son." And her own son, Nicholas Callaway Foster, is an impactfully sturdy presence as her deep-voiced guest duet partner for "Move On." Keeping things in the family, husband/dad Dan Foster is the director for this tender tribute that becomes especially touching for sure when "With So Little to Be Sure Of" resonates most poignantly, summing up her gratitude for having known the much-missed man of the hour and his work, cherishing each "marvelous moment." And the audience for this recent live performance appears to be an appreciative fan club. You might want to join their membership for this memorable memorial.

Yellow Sound Label
2- CD Set, Digital

Three cheers for Volume Three of Sondheim Unplugged {The NYC Sessions}! Once again, admirers of Stephen Sondheim's catalog get a grand glut (42 tracks) of the master's gems rendered by a cross-section of theatre-savvy performers. Like the two prior sets in the series of studio recordings featuring those who've been in the same-named long-running live series presented at 54 Below,'s full of home runs. Many singers heard on the earlier volumes make return appearances; a few selections that were on hand for an earlier volume are now handed on to others. Once again, there's just piano accompaniment, by the estimable Joseph Goodrich, at his best here, focused and precise, a one-man band that can make us appreciate the core elements of the melodies. He also perkily participates as a solo version of the mayoress' yes men for Anyone Can Whistle's "Me and My Town," partnering with Pamela Myers as she struts through an idiosyncratic take on the corrupt politician.

There are so many highlights that any review of this edition of Sondheim Unplugged risks turning into a long list that still only scratches the surface while exhausting both its readers' eyeballs and its imposed maximum word count. But I feel compelled to mention some performers if only because they bear the shadow of history, are especially vibrant in putting their own stamps on much-covered material (despite the piano accompaniment and tempi that echo the classic blueprints), or successfully try something new.

An inventive mix of pieces from two different scores finds Liz McCartney adroitly upping the emotional ante of longing for past sensory pleasures in the back-and-forth between Evening Primrose's "I Remember" and Sunday in the Park with George's "Beautiful" (here titled "Changing"). The reflection on meeting one's ideal man, "So Many People," is this time around sung by a man with no change to the lyric, in a vulnerable interpretation by Charlie Levy.

Marta Sanders knocks my socks off with a seething take-no-prisoners take on the ultimate stage mother from Gypsy, unleashing the desperation in "Everything's Coming Up Roses." Sally Mayes, who has played the role in relatively recent productions, turns on (and up) the heat, raging through the score's "Rose's Turn," with an all-stops-out catharsis. Ken Jennings, who was the original Tobias in Sweeney Todd from 43 years ago (!) is touching but tremulous on the beginning of his return to "Not While I'm Around," but sounds more comfortable as it progresses. Teri Ralston, with numerous Sondheim projects to her credit as actress and director, hurtles back to 1970 and Company to again sing the part of Jenny and neurotic bride Amy in that score's "Getting Married Today." Robust-voiced Aaron Ramey makes one of three appearances in this set to be the groom. Eric Michael Gillett, understudy to the underworld's Pluto in The Frogs (2004 production) nimbly nails that mythological character's pose as confident master of all he surveys.

Let's consider the contributions of a few folks who, once upon a time (or two), journeyed Into the Woods. Especially remarkable is the case of Pamela Winslow Kashani, who first played Rapunzel in its original Broadway cast back in 1987. Here, thanks to the wonders of technology, she shares a tour-de-force duet with herself, playing both that character and her mother (the Witch), on "Our Little World," the number added to the score after her own tower-trapped time as the long-haired lass. (It was in the 1990 London production and later ones.) Joy Franz, who eventually handled four different roles on Broadway in that musical (1987 and the 2002 revival) gets a change with "No One Is Alone" and delivers a dignified rendition. And Danielle Ferland, who created that basket-toting little girl with the famous red hood, "graduates" to the adult role of the wife of the baker, with Jeff Blumenkrantz as her husband, as they endearingly duet on "It Takes Two."

The "Sondheim Unplugged" concert series continues at 54 Below in midtown Manhattan in the new year. The hosting/narrating duties have been taken over by Rob Maitner, who makes a couple of appearances on the newest recording, including dishing out fun in a Sweeney Todd romp, trading the playful pie puns with versatile Lucia Spina during "A Little Priest." Its title is just about the only thing where the word "little" applies to this parade of musical theatre pleasures.