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Sondheim! The Birthday Concert

(2010) *** 1/2 Unrated
116 min. PBS. Cast: Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, David Hyde Pierce, Donna Murphy.

/content/films/3887/1.jpg2010 has been The Year of Sondheim. As he turned 80, Stephen Sondheim could lay claim to being the most fêted Broadway composer in history. The Stephen Sondheim Theatre was dedicated this year, while Broadway played celebrated revivals of A Little Night Music, and West Side Story, as well as new revue Sondheim on Sondheim. The New York Pops perfomed the Stephen Sondheim 80th Birthday Celebration at Carnegie Hal, and Chicago’s Ravinia Festival hosted its own birthday bash, Sondheim: 80, with Paul Gemignani conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with vocalists Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris, George Hearn, and Audra McDonald under the direction of Lonny Price. The latter event was a scaled-down version of a two-night Lincoln Center event that aired as a PBS special and now makes its way to home video: Sondheim! The Birthday Concert.

Directed by Price (an original Broadway cast member of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along), Sondheim! A Birthday Concert gathers a starry group to bow down to the beloved musical-theatre auteur. Gemignani has been a musical director on Sondheim projects for years, and the concert arrangements come courtesy of Sondheim's longtime orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. The stage performers on hand span the composer's career, from youngsters Jenn Colella, Matt Cavenaugh, Bobby Steggert and Laura Osnes to vaunted veteran vocalists LuPone, McDonald, Cerveris, Hearn, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Donna Murphy, Joanna Gleason, Marin Mazzie, and John McMartin. Part of Price's concept for this musical gift to Sondheim (who beams throughout from his aisle seat house center) was to bill the perfomers and list the songs in the program, but not to reveal who sings what. No spoilers here, then, other than to say that Price calls upon many of the vets to revisit their famous roles. Some of the novelty comes from the pairing of actors who have played the same role—as in the case of Cerveris and Hearn—or, say, having someone sing Elaine Stritch's signature tune "The Ladies Who Lunch" as Stritch sits a few feet away on stage.

The song selections aren't terribly surprising: most of the greatest hits are here, spanning from Sondheim's lyrical years ("America" and "Something's Coming" from West Side Story, for example) to his lengthy music-and-lyrics heyday (seven songs from Follies, three from Sunday in the Park with George, three from Sweeney Todd). Price does throw a few curveballs, like the little-known ditty "Don't Laugh" (penned by Sondheim, Mary Rodgers & Martin Charnin for Judy Holliday) and a pas-de-deux ballet interlude to Sondheim's cinematic "Theme from Reds." "Putting it together" is reliably droll host David Hyde Pierce, who kills with a running joke that builds to a vocal solo and the introduction of six divas dolled up in matching fire-engine-red outifts designed by Diane Von Furstenberg. The concert's climactic crescendo offers plenty of "penny for their thoughts" reaction shots from the beaming ladies, but after diva after diva "tops" the others, we realize it's no contast: it's Stritch who effortlessly brings down the house with an anthem that speaks to her longevity and Sondheim's. Long may they both live.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, LPCM 2.0

Street date: 11/16/2010

Distributor: Image Entertainment

Image Entertainment delivers Sondheim! The Birthday Concert in 1080i High Definition. The transfer is bright and colorful, but a bit soft: there's no question that it's a bolder image than standard definition can deliver, especially in the many close-up shots, which reveal significantly more detail and texture than the wide shots. More importantly, the concert disc delivers impeccable sound, in two mixes: a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and an LPCM 2.0 stereo mix. Both are excellent and carefully mixed, with the vocals sounding especially rich. This disc includes no bonus features, but Sondheim fans will not want to be without this historic concert in the life of a musical legend.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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