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Case Number 20189: Small Claims Court

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Sondheim: The Birthday Concert (Blu-Ray)

Image Entertainment // 2010 // 116 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // November 24th, 2010

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Editor's Note

Our review of Sondheim: The Birthday Concert, published November 16th, 2010, is also available.

The Charge

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sondheim!

The Case

A birthday concert for the legendary composer Stephen Sondheim, Sondheim: The Birthday Concert (Blu-Ray) is a dream come true for fans of the theater; a slickly choreographed two-hour nonstop barrage of hit songs performed by an all-star Broadway cast and The New York Philharmonic. As birthday gifts go, it has all the spontaneity of an awards show, but it's impossible to knock the top-shelf talent and brilliant musical styling of Sondheim on display.

Recorded at Avery Fisher Hall in March 2010 and hosted by David Hyde Pierce, Sondheim: The Birthday Concert (Blu-Ray) is unapologetically overproduced. There is a stage done up like a birthday box; there is a teleprompter and a host and a non-stop rotation of famous Broadway celebrities and musical talents, knocking out song after song from a back catalog of Sondheim musicals spanning over five decades. Sondheim: The Birthday Concert (Blu-Ray) features performances from Bernadette Peters, Michael Cerveris, Joanna Gleason, opera star Nathan Gunn, George Hearn, Patti LuPone, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, John McMartin, Donna Murphy, Mandy Patinkin, Elaine Stritch, and Chip Zien.

The track list is as follows:

• "America" (West Side Story)
• "Something's Coming" (West Side Story)
• "We're Gonna Be All Right" (Do I Hear a Waltz?)
• "Don't Laugh" (Hot Spot)
• "Johanna" (Sweeney Todd)
• "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" / "Love Will See Us Through" (Follies)
• "Too Many Mornings"
• "The Road You Didn't Take" (Follies)
• "It Takes Two" (Into The Woods)
• "Growing Up" (Merrily We Roll Along)
• "Finishing The Hat" (Sunday in the Park with George)
• "Move On" (Sunday in the Park with George)
• "Pretty Woman" (Sweeney Todd)
• "A Little Priest" (Sweeney Todd)
• "Theme From Reds" (with "Pas de Deux")
• "So Many People" (Saturday Night)
• "Beautiful Girls" (Follies)
• "The Ladies Who Lunch" (Company)
• "Losing My Mind" (Follies)
• "The Glamorous Life" (A Little Night Music)
• "Could I Leave You?" (Follies)
• "Not A Day Goes By" (Merrily We Roll Along)
• "I'm Still Here" (Follies)
• "Sunday" (Sunday in the Park with George)

The song selection, a nice cross-section of Sondheim's most famous works has heavy emphasis on Follies, whose songs amount to almost a third of the set. Broadway fans will delight in some of the lesser-known or alternate versions of these gems, many of which were cut or modified during their original performances, but odds are good most people will be singing along right from the get-go. A Broadway geek I'm not, but my wife absolutely is (here's a hint: her last name is Lapine, and yes, relation) and she was singing at the top of her lungs throughout the performance without a break. Or consider our own Judge Jim Thomas' triple-digit glowing review—'nuff said. In my book, the fans have spoken.

Standout performances? Well, all of it. To my amateurish ears, there's not a bad song in the bunch or a flat note to be heard. These people are consummate professionals, and even those hauled back into the spotlight after twenty or thirty years away from the part kick out spectacular performances. In true appreciation for the source material, the concert takes great joy in pairing up original Broadway cast members for musical reunions, like Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin (Sunday in the Park with George) or Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien (Into the Woods). The producers have a good sense of humor about it; some of the pairings are a bit tongue-in-cheek, like Michael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd) getting razzed by George Hearn, the original Sweeney Todd, now delegated to the Judge Turpin role.

If I had to pick favorites, "Could I Leave You?" (performed by Donna Murphy) and "Finishing the Hat" (performed by Mandy Patinkin) were knockouts—and it's hard not to root hard for the legendary Elaine Stritch belting out a solo with the vivaciousness of a woman sixty years her junior.

Presented in 1080i, Sondheim: The Birthday Concert (Blu-ray) looks at first glance; closeup shots are tight, with sharp detail, crisp whites, and deep rich black levels. Things get a worse when the camera pulls back and the image dissolves into a muddle of excessive red tones and softness. The stage, done up like a red birthday box, simply befuddles the camera at every angle. Audience shots are a haze of grain and incoherence. The increase in fidelity is worth the price premium for Blu-Ray, but only just; the technical chops of this disc aren't up to current concert film standards.

On the other hand, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is sublime, simply everything you want out of a concert track. Singers are perfectly captured and balanced against the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, soaring out of every channel with perfect clarity and separation. Every instrument, from the smallest triangle to the most booming drum are perfectly articulated and realized. An uncompressed PCM stereo track is also included, which does a passable job but lacks the sparkle and brightness of the surround track.

There are no extras included on this set, which isn't a problem in of itself, but I'll tell you one thing this Blu-Ray could have used: on-screen titles. For non-Broadway geeks, it would have been extremely helpful to have titles letting me know who was singing what song from what musical.

Sondheim: The Birthday Concert (Blu-ray) is an exuberant musical delight, but a weak transfer keep this Blu-Ray from top marks. Fans of musical theater, this Blu-ray has your name written all over it.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 89

Perp Profile

Studio: Image Entertainment
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
Audio Formats:
• DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
• PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Concerts and Musicals
• Performance

Distinguishing Marks

• None

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