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Case Number 20126: Small Claims Court

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Sondheim: The Birthday Concert

Image Entertainment // 2010 // 116 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // November 16th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Jim Thomas got a birthday concert from his kids that was cool—except for the 5 am part.

Editor's Note

Our review of Sondheim: The Birthday Concert (Blu-Ray), published November 24th, 2010, is also available.

The Charge

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sondheim!

The Case

On March 22, 2010, Sondheim celebrated his 80th birthday. To commemorate the event and his career, several of his friends developed a special concert, designed as a birthday present/thank you from the Broadway community to Sondheim—right down to the giant red bow that adorned the Avery Fisher Hall. The concert, hosted by David Hyde Pierce with a winning combination of charm and humor, has a loose structure—songs for which Sondheim just wrote lyrics, performers recreating the songs they originated, etc. The beauty of Sondheim's work, the intelligence of the lyrics, the sophistication of the music, are on full display, not just because of their inherent strengths (which are many), but because of a stellar lineup that crystallizes the difference between performing and merely singing. It might be a little choreography, a little stage business, or just a carefully timed expression, but the characters' fear, doubt, love, rage, and, above all, passion, come shining through.

The concert has so many things going for it, but the impish sense of humor must be mentioned. Not only are there a number of well-conceived and executed running gags, but in an act of inspiration, the program didn't include a song list. That seems inconsequential, but it has a great impact, as it heightens the audience's reactions. Think about a Rolling Stones concert when the opening riff to "Satisfaction" slices through the din; the crowd goes wild. Same thing here, especially when the audience realizes that they're going to get two Sweeney Todds for the price of one.

sondheim birthday

There's a lovely little bit when Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason perform "It Takes Two" from Into the Woods. As Gleason delivers the first line, "You've changed," Zien's wry grin acknowledges the twenty-four years that have passed since they starred in the original production. Little bits like that, scattered throughout the concert, that give the concert a surprisingly intimacy.

sondheim birthday

The wonderful moments abound, like Victoria Clark's comic, winning rendition of "Don't Laugh" and James Gunn's and Audra McDonald's bravura delivery of Follies' "Too Many Mornings" Without question, the most jaw-dropping section is "Beautiful Girls." The song from Follies introduces Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie, Donna Murphy, and Elaine Stritch, all decked out in lush red gowns. The simplicity of it—they sit on stools looking on in appreciation while each in turn delivers a show-stopping number. It's a tour-de-force in a concert littered with such moments.

sondheim birthday

I've listened to quite a few DTS tracks since joining the bench; I've yet to hear a bad one. This particular track however, is quite possibly the best to come before the court. Whether it's the gentle dynamics of Bernadette Peters' voice, the tight harmonies of a duet, or the majesty of the New York Philharmonic, the sound is nothing short of magnificent. For the most part, the back channels are devoted to the audience's enthusiastic responses, but at the end of the show, when performers from all of the current Broadway and off-Broadway shows (over 250 strong) stream down the aisles singing "Sunday," the sound come from everywhere, pure ethereal magic. The Dolby 5.1 is a marked step down from the DTS track, though; the sound field isn't nearly as immersive, and lacks the intimacy of the DTS track. The concert was shot in hi-def video, and is amazing even in a standard def format. The magnificent red gowns in "Beautiful Girls" are stunning. There's a slight hitch when the disc changes layers; they managed to keep it from coming in the middle of a song, but it's a near thing—but the end result is that the screen momentarily freezes on a glaring Michael Cervaris preparing to give George Hearn a shave, so it's kind of cool, actually.

There are no extras, nor are any really needed.

The Verdict

Very simply, this is the best concert disc I've ever seen. From a technical viewpoint, I should probably knock off a couple of points for the relatively weak Dolby track, but then I realized something: I've had this disc a week. I've watched it nine times. If that doesn't warrant a perfect score, I don't know what does.

Again, happy birthday, Mr. Sondheim. And thank you.

sondheim birthday

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 100

Perp Profile

Studio: Image Entertainment
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• None
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Concerts and Musicals
• Performance

Distinguishing Marks

• None

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