Home » London Theatre Reviews » Jeff Harnar sings Sondheim at The Pheasantry | Review

Jeff Harnar sings Sondheim at The Pheasantry | Review

The music and lyrics, the sharply dressed New Yorker Jeff Harnar told the audience, are Stephen Sondheim’s, but the story is his own. Well, he’d be a terrible politician, at least on this side of the pond, doing what he said he would do. The songs did all of the storytelling, or rather ninety-eight per cent of it, which made for an unusual experience at Pizza Express Live – a radical departure from the usual style of anecdotes sandwiched in between songs. There’s a risk that so much singing, and therefore relatively little talk, could have distanced the performer from his audience, but not when the concert is as meticulously put together as this.

Jeff Harnar sings Sondheim
Jeff Harnar

It would, I think, take someone with more knowledge of Stephen Sondheim’s work than yours truly to identify every tune included in this engaging and assured concert. It’s good to have a mixture of familiar and not so familiar tunes (even if members of the Stephen Sondheim Society in the audience were probably very familiar with everything in Harnar’s setlist), and there were often several songs included in a seamless and continuous round. Jon Weber at the piano glided through the sometimes dense material, whether it was the breakneck-paced patter song ‘Getting Married Today’ from Company, or the mellower ‘Children Will Listen’ from Into The Woods.

There are different arrangements to some of the showtunes – I particularly enjoyed a jazzy rendering of ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ – and while there were lyrics sung in a slightly (or even, occasionally, substantially) different style to what theatre audiences are used to, it fits the show’s setup of Harnar telling his life story through these songs. Versatility is the name of the game, with vocal gymnastics in full swing, and hearing Harnar sing melodies ordinarily given to women to sing gave those showtunes a fresh, different and thoughtful perspective.

As ever with Sondheim’s lyrics, there’s a lot packed into each song. The acoustics of the Pheasantry (admittedly an intimate venue) are such that every line was crystal clear, which isn’t always the case in larger playhouses, but is vital to understand what is going on. An amusing postscript came in the form of ‘Sunday in the Meadow with Curly’, a medley written by Rick Crom, imagining what it would be like if Stephen Sondheim had written and composed the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!

A delightful evening that managed to cram in more showtunes in a single act than some shows have in two without ever feeling rushed through.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Jeff Harnar pays tribute to the late, great American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Harnar and renowned jazz pianist Jon Weber will revisit an eclectic setlist from Follies, Into The Woods, Company and more.

5th February (8pm)
The Pheasantry
152 Kings Road, London, SW3 4UT


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