BWW Reviews: Broadway Star Raul Esparza Triumphant in His New Sondheim Concert at Valley Performing Arts Center
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by Don Grigware
Rare is the performer labeled a force of nature. A force of nature is dynamic, electric and totally unpredictable, in a positive way. Actor/singer Raul Esparza is a true force of nature, based solely on his unforgettable performance at Valley Performing Arts Center, Northridge Saturday November 17. Commanding the stage every second, talking fast with intense reflection, moving like a bolt of lightning from stage left to right, jumping on and off the piano, and singing masterfully, Esparza essayed a personal journey through the music of Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim said to him after an audition once, "You're fuckin' brilliant, kid!" I agree. I am so glad I was there to witness his brilliance once again.
This was my third REE experience. The first was Che in the 1999 20th anniversary tour of Evita, the second at the Ahmanson in 2010 in Leap of Faith...and now in concert. It is easy to comprehend why he has won and been nominated for so many theatrical awards. He brings every ounce of himself to every word he utters and every note he sings. Sondheim is a genius, as pointed out by Esparza. He wrote the lyrics for West Side Story in the 50s...and is still composing in his 80s. Esparza's concert, although told personally through his own experiences with the master, is not only a tribute to Sondheim but a musical master class in the art of putting together a Broadway show. Esparza chose Company, which he successfully revived in 2006 on Broadway with Sondheim's guidance. Assisting him then and now in this concert as musical director was virtuosoMary-Mitchell Campbell, who created the new orchestrations for the revival. Both offered individual, endearing recollections of Sondheim in between numbers, some terribly funny and showing his masterful eccentricities as a collaborator.
Esparza's concert was divided into two acts. Based on what he told me backstage afterwards, he had planned it as one, but was asked to provide an intermission. So, when the show plays again - and it surely must - it will rightfully play out in one act representing the full journey of both Sondheim's work and its influence on Esparza's. At the beginning of this first-time out work he opened with "Something's Coming" from West Side Story to which Sondheim penned the lyrics, followed by the much later "Not While I'm Around" from Sweeney Todd. "Everybody Says Don't" from Anyone Can Whistle is the perfect signature tune for Esparza's enormous drive and self-confidence. "Another Hundred People" from Company became a vibrant three act play where he talked about Tish in New York, going to do rep in Chicago and then coming back to New York for growth as an artist. His first act finale "Franklin Sheppard Inc" from Merrily We Roll Along is so appropriate in that it is his beloved audition piece that finally landed him the role in tandem with George in Sunday in the Park with George collaborating with Sondheim.
Act II offered George's sung monologue from Sunday, "I Remember Sky" from Evening Primrose, and "No More Giants" from Into the Woods. The piece de resistance for Sondheim's creative process came with the various songs that would serve as an ending for Bobby in Company. Of the many actually composed, Esparza offered "Marry Me a Little", "Multitudes of Amys" and a 70ish sounding nontypical Sondheim "Happily Ever After", all of which were discarded in favor of "Being Alive". Encores were "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday and an emotionally laden "Goodbye" from the film Reds.
Both Sondheim and Esparza are driven and conscientious artists. As determined as Sondheim was to make Company work, Esparza honed his audition from Merrily to finally nail the job. A beautifully entertaining evening in the theatre as performed by the incomparable Raul Esparza and equally marvelous Mary-Mitchell Campbell! Don't miss this very personal, informative and richly rewarding journey through Sondheim and Esparza when it comes to a venue near you!