What other venue but Bayou City Concert Musicals could turn an award presentation into a sparkling revue?
Last Saturday night, March 29, BCCM transformed Cullen Hall at the University of St. Thomas into the swankiest of venues for an evening's entertainment of Sondheim songs, all in honor of the company bestowing its annual Kim Hupp Award to one of Houston's theatrical treasures, Sylvia Froman.
The only things missing to complete the Manhattan cabaret atmosphere were cocktail tables, cigarette and hat check girls, and the tinkling of bar ware. The BCCM talent, a deep-dish array from the best of Houston musical theater, rivaled any on Broadway once seen at such legendary places as the Algonquin's Oak Room, the Cafe Carlyle, or the former Feinstein's. It was an evening of superb music making, all there to honor Froman.
After BCCM's artistic director Paul Hope made brief introductory remarks, he stood aside and let the show roll on without pause.
A crash course in Sondheim's inexhaustible style, the selections included ear-opening rarities "I Remember," from his Twilight Zone-like TV musical Evening Primrose (1966), that starred Anthony Perkins; "A Parade in Town," from the Angela Landsbury/Lee Remick Anyone Can Whistle (1964), which ran nine performances on Broadway; "A Good Thing Going," from Merrily We Roll Along (1981), a cult favorite that lasted all of 16 performances; and "I Never Do Anything Twice" from Herbert Ross's Sherlock Holmes-meets-Sigmund Freud movie The Seven Percent Solution (1976). His mastery of lyric writing for other composers included the iconic "Tonight," from Bernstein's West Side Story (1957) and the comic duet "If Momma Was Married" from the equally iconic Gypsy (1959), music penned by Jule Styne.
Sondheim favorites were not forgotten: the bebop Andrews Sisters-inspired "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" from Company (1970); the bitchy "Could I Leave You?" and uptempo "Broadway Baby" from Follies (1971); his most famous song "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music (1973); and two dreamy ballads, "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods (1987) and "Move On" from Sunday in the Park with George (1984).
Wearing evening wear, the impressive cast of eight gave a master class in how to perform songs out of a show's original context. No intros were necessary to get the meaning, to know who the characters were. Each was its own little drama, or comedy, the singing actors relying instead on the words and music to understand the characteristic wit, charm, and ingenuity of the song. All of them supplied enough vigor for an entire chorus line.
The future of the Broadway musical - or any musical, for that fact - remains very much alive, kicking, and essential when these veterans and young pros strut their stuff. They are all Broadway babies: Zachery Bryant, Susan Draper, Jennifer Gilbert, Dylan Godwin, Joe Kirkendall, Amanda Passanante, Cole Ryden, and Susan Shofner. Superb, all. At the piano, musical director Michael Mertz kept the program jumping, if at a sound level more appropriate to a gin joint. The unamplified artists lost a few key phrases when a softer Steinway would have been appreciated. Sondheim's spicy, intricate wordplay needs to be heard.
But the most memorable, moving, and explicitly theatrical moment was Froman's rendition of the haunting "Liaisons" from A Little Night Music. After receiving the 2014 Kim Hupp Award, she was asked to reprise the haunting, rueful song of the wise old courtesan, who regrets the passing of time and the shoddiness of the present.
She played the role in BCCM's early days, one of her definitive performances I was privileged to see when her stage career was winding down. She still holds the stage just by being on it. Like the glint of light off a sequin, she immediately transformed herself from old pro into the soigne, champagne-pickled survivor who is the autumnal heart of Sondheim's show.
Her voice dropped, her stance changed with a crook of an arm, and Cullen Hall was graced with an impromptu rendition that was its own little master class. She's one of a rare breed these days, a valentine to showbiz. Timeless in talent and impeccable in timing, she loves being on stage, and her joy is infectious - and inspirational. Across the footlights, the love travels both ways.
Here's to you, Sylvia Froman! Don't stay away too long.