Our Time: KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar Sing Sondheim at the Crazy Coqs, London continues until 14 February.
Star rating: 4 stars ****
Put two of New York’s finest, most enduring cabaret performers in the best room in town, give them 20 of Stephen Sondheim’s cleverest songs to interpret, many with a new, gender-bending twist, and the result, as you might expect, is a pretty classy evening.
KT Sullivan, who these days runs the New York Cabaret Convention (13-16 October this year, go if you possibly can), and the ever-dapper Jeff Harnar bring their Our Time show, first aired on Broadway last summer, to London’s cosy Crazy Coqs for their first appearance here as a double act.
The show’s title, the optimistic, starry-eyed anthem from Merrily We Roll Along, gives the game away: Our time, 2015, is a very different one from when Sondheim was creating these early and middle-period masterpieces – only material written before 1982 is used – and with same-sex marriages and civil partnerships embraced by a more broad-minded public, why shouldn’t a man sing songs that Sondheim intended for his women and vice versa?
The bitingly cynical ‘Could I Leave You?’, originally sung by Phyllis in response to Ben suggesting a divorce in Follies, becomes, if anything, even more cuttingly mercenary in Harnar’s version, spitting out his extravagant demands to a wealthier gay partner.
It’s the same with ‘Loving You’ (from Passion) and ‘Losing My Mind’ (Follies again), two ballads associated with women sung with quiet intensity and equal validity by Harnar. The gender change also works with the deliciously suggestive ‘Can That Boy Foxtrot!’ where Harnar’s lusting after a fellow-male extracts plenty of laughs.
And it was the same with the mostly-Company medley, about marital anxiety and featuring the trickiest song in the whole Sondheim cycle, that faster-than-light tongue-twister ‘Getting Married Today’, only this time it’s the groom rather than the bride getting the last-minute shakes.
There’s nothing avant garde about a man singing ‘Send in the Clowns’, one of the few Sondheim songs ever to be a chart hit. Even though written in 1973 for husky British actress Glynis Johns in A Little Night Music, it has been recorded by countless males in its 900-plus reincarnations, from Frank Sinatra, through to Kenny Rogers, Tom Jones and Bryn Terfel, to name but four.
Harnar’s slow, slighty jazz-infused treatment is not the evening’s most successful moment but the kooky KT soon lifts spirits with her hilarious party piece, ‘The Madame’s Song’ from the otherwise barely-remembered 1976 film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.
“I never do anything twice”, she teases but this is one we could hear a hundred times from an artist of such perfect timing without ever tiring of it. Apart from having such a gloriously pure voice, KT is as funny an actress of a song as there is in this cabaret game.
This is obviously not a cross-dressed Sondheim but Sullivan takes on perennial bachelor Bobby’s ‘Being Alive’ from Company and gives it the feminine touch and does the same with two from Sweeney Todd, ‘Pretty Women’, a man’s song she says she has always wanted to sing, and the beautiful ‘Johanna’.
Not every song would have been familiar to the appreciative first-night audience, particularly if they were Sondheim newbies, but the duo, greatly assisted by the towering Jon Weber on piano, let the great man’s words speak for themselves, not interrupting with any explanations.
‘What More Do I Need?’ which Sondheim wrote when he was a lad of 23 for Saturday Night, composed before his big breakthrough as lyricist for West Side Story but never performed in its entirety until 1997, probably falls into that category as does the encore, ‘Goodbye For Now’, the theme from the 1981 movie Reds.
An evening to cherish with Sondheim’s 85th birthday only a month away. There’ll never be another like him. And Our Time is emphatically worth your time.
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