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No Sondheim, but the show merrily rolls along in Costa Mesa

October 30, 2011 |  3:02 pm

Tedd Firth, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Ebersole, Michael Kerker 025

This post has been updated; see below for details.

Call it “Side by side, bye, Sondheim.”

A program scheduled for Saturday night at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, “Sondheim: In Conversation” ran into a seemingly fatal snag Saturday afternoon — the composer got stuck 3,000 miles away, a grounded hostage of the unexpected snowstorm that snarled air traffic in and out of New York.

In Costa Mesa, things seemed as bleak as the East Coast weather: A sold-out house but with no Stephen Sondheim, definitely no conversation, and seemingly no show.

Not so fast. As it turned out, formidable resources were in the house. Broadway veterans Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes Mitchell, included on the program to provide vocal amplification and illumination to the conversation, aren’t known as Sondheim singers per se, but they proved to be masters of improvisation and inspiration Saturday.

After hearing that Sondheim was a scratch, the principals gathered about 4 p.m. in Ebersole's dressing room and began going through folders of music, deciding what to sing and who would sing it. At around 5:45, they started rehearsing with pianist Tedd Firth. At 8:18, along with emcee Michael Kerker, they came onstage to find an audience that just had been greeted at the door with the news that while there was no Sondheim, there would be a show of some sort.

The result: a 15-song, 95-minute performance from the Sondheim catalog that was both satisfying and a bit startling in how seamlessly polished it turned out to be. Mitchell and Ebersole traded solos, sang opening and closing duets and shed both anecdotal and artistic light on Sondheim’s compositions.

Ebersole noted that she had never done a Sondheim musical — only “Getting Away With Murder," a Sondheim play that lasted 17 performances on Broadway in 1996 — but her delivery on her seven solos belied her lack of experience.

Both her vocal and emotional range were compelling. “The Ladies Who Lunch” was dished up with intensity, more raging social commentary than resigned reflection. But on a song from Sondheim’s newest musical, “Road Show,” called “Isn’t He Something,” she finessed the simple melody. And then for the obscure novelty song “The Boy From…,” which Sondheim wrote with Mary Rodgers as a parody of “The Girl From Ipanema,” Ebersole joked up every lyric.

Mitchell also lacks a Sondheim pedigree (“I did ‘Sweeney Todd’ for 14 performance in D.C. one year“), but he supplemented his leading-man baritone vocals with actorly touches. While singing “Giants in the Sky” from “Into the Woods,” Mitchell conveyed pop-eyed astonishment at the wonders Jack had seen when up the beanstalk. And his rendering of “In Praise of Women” from “A Little Night Music” was delivered as suitably over-dramatic, with plenty of puffed-up gestures accompanying the singing.

Backing all these numbers were impeccable touches from pianist Firth. Late in the program, Mitchell introduced the song “Loving You,” from Sondheim’s “Passion,” by noting that “there’s nobody I’d rather be shot out of a cannon with” than Firth, his ongoing accompanist.

Ebersole and Mitchell started the show together with “You Must Meet My Wife” from “A Little Night Music” and closed it via a deranged version of “A Light Priest” from “Sweeney Todd," Ebersole impeccably channeling Angela Lansbury’s cockney accent and timing.

Part of the show’s success stemmed from the fourth person onstage.

Kerker, ASCAP’s director of musical theater, provided contextually insightful introductions to songs and anecdotal asides about nuances in the Sondheim catalog. For instance, leading into Ebersole’s version of the title track from “Anyone Can Whistle,” Kerker noted that while the show ran for only nine performances in 1964 it marked Lansbury’s first appearance on Broadway and led to her being hired for “Mame.”

Kerker also conjured up a surprise at the evening’s start, introducing the “voice of God” and, lo and behold, out of a speakerphone, came the sound of the night’s missing deity, Sondheim himself. He wryly offered a “welcome to warm and dry Southern California,” spoke briefly about songwriting and then gave the evening over to the on-site principals.

The plan is that Sondheim will appear in the flesh at Segerstrom Hall, along with those principals, for a redo of the original program, though a makeup date has yet to be established. Weather permitting, that is.

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— Christopher Smith

[For the record, 3:30 a.m. Oct. 1: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect title of Sondheim's latest show, "Road Show."]

Photo: Tedd Firth, left, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Ebersole and Michael Kerker  Credit: Steve Dawson.

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