Sondheim's music fills Tanglewood

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LENOX — The time is long past since Stephen Sondheim could be considered an acquired taste, a critical favorite whose popularity with the theatergoing public waxed and waned over his six-decade career despite a loyal coterie of devoted fans.

Now, at 85, the composer-lyricist is Broadway's great master, worthy of comparison to his mentor and father-figure Oscar Hammerstein II, the playwright and songwriter who earned the title of legendary.

Revues of Sondheim's work have been many over the years. In its "Simply Sondheim" on Saturday night, the Boston Pops' program was, well, simply outstanding.

Conductor Keith Lockhart has musical theater in his bones — in a backstage interview, he recalled his early training in the field and his belief that he was Broadway-bound as a pit conductor until the BSO plucked him from semi-obscurity in Cincinnati 20 years ago to succeed John Williams at the helm of "America's Orchestra," as the Pops is billed.

The Pops Esplanade Orchestra, a blend of freelancers and BSO players, offered resplendent performances of Sondheim's complex scoring. It was a rare treat to hear this great music played by a full-sized orchestra rather than the increasingly stripped-down Broadway and revival-production bands.

But there was much more to admire on this occasion, a repeat of two shows performed earlier this month during the Pops spring season at Boston's Symphony Hall.

Singer-actress Kate Baldwin (filling in for Marin Mazzie, who is ill) and Jason Danieley (Mazzie's husband) are both top-of-the-line Broadway veterans. Their performances of some very well-known Sondheim and other less familiar material, were notable, not only for vocal prowess but for the singers' ability to inhabit their characters in these morsels from a dozen Sondheim shows, from "Anyone Can Whistle" (1964) to "Passion" (1994).

Baldwin, whose pure, luminous soprano is a particular pleasure, offered a whirlwind take on the hyper patter song by the reluctant bride-to-be Amy in "Getting Married Today" from "Company," a touching "Anyone Can Whistle" and a heartbreaking "In Buddy's Eyes" from "Follies."

Danieley excelled in his heartfelt take on the "Company" show-stopper "Being Alive," and exuded uncompromising self-absorption as the painter Georges Seurat in "Finishing the Hat" from "Sunday in the Park with George."

As collaborators, Baldwin and Danieley were vocal soulmates in "Good Thing Going" and "Not a Day Goes By" from "Merrily We Roll Along," the title songs from "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Sunday in the Park with George" and the lush, fervently romantic "Happiness" from "Passion."

Perhaps the most welcome surprise of this scintillating evening was the artistic prowess of the supporting cast.

Six young Vocal Fellows from the Tanglewood Music Center summer institute all demonstrated they're ready for prime time.

Hats off to Dimitri Katotakis (a heartfelt "No More" from "Into the Woods"), Paulina Villarreal (mesmerizing in "The Miller's Son" from "A Little Night Music"), Davone Tines (a compelling "In Praise of Women" from "Night Music" and an emotionally-charged "Loving You" from "Passion"), Jason Weisinger (an uplifting "Giants in the Sky" from ("Woods") as well as ensemble cast members Nola Richardson and Alison Wahl.

Richardson and Villarreal were ideal partners in an unlikely combination of "Pretty Lady" from "Pacific Overtures" and "Pretty Women" from "Sweeney Todd." The evening ended with a flourish as the full cast and orchestra sang out the uplifting "Sunday" finale.

The revue — co-created by director Sarna Lapine, niece of Sondheim's mid-career collaborator James Lapine, and musical director Andy Einhorn — verged on a semi-staged format, with a modicum of costuming, props and stagecraft. Rather than just stringing together a collection of Sondheim gems, the actor-singers offered narration taken from his own volumes of annotated lyrics, "Finishing the Hat" and "Look, I Made a Hat."

For devotees of Sondheim's living legacy over six decades and any newcomers to his genius, this was far more than a concert performance — it was a musical autobiography, filled with keen insight and outstanding musicianship. Who could ask for anything more?

Contact Clarence Fanto at (413) 637-2551


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