Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Nancy Allen Takes on Stephen Sondheim with High Style in Belmont Concert

Denice Hicks--artistic director of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival--once spoke of the richness of our fair city’s talent base. And so it is.

If someone did a study of per capita musical talent, Nashville would surely lead the nation. It’s a smaller-sized “major” city that attracts all sorts of musical people--so much so that truly gifted singers, composers and players often fail to grab the brass rings of big-time financial and/or deserving critical success.

Nashville--for all its southern charm and laid-back livability--is a tough town.

That goes for theatrical performers as well. I have witnessed tremendous growth in that area in my decade-plus stint as a Nashville theater critic. This town has many, many gifted actors, and alas there are not enough roles for them all.

Such is the artistic life.

And such is life in Nashville, where, on a balmy Monday night in November, one can mosey on over to the stunningly appointed Belmont Mansion on the campus of Belmont University, where a faculty recital, Send in the Sondheim, wows a packed house. (Oh yeah...the admission was free.)

Hard to say which was the main attraction: the lineup of Stephen Sondheim pieces from shows both familiar and obscure, or the leading lady, Nancy Allen, with her robust mezzo-soprano.

Let’s defer--easily--to the latter. Allen (left) is a familiar face to Nashville theatergoers, though we probably don’t see her onstage as often as we should. When she’s not singing in church, she teaches classical voice, mainly to theater majors at Belmont, does occasional opera work, and gigs at various theater companies. Back in April, she performed in Street Theatre Company’s production of Hairspray--as the racist Velma. Unlikely casting for the lovely and gracious Allen? Sure, but the talented pro pulled it off with venomous mirth.

Her embrace of Sondheim last night was even better. The lineup of 20 songs was drawn from the expected big shows (West Side Story, Follies, Company, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music) and also from shows with perhaps less immediate recognition for the average Joe (Evening Primrose, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods, Assassins).

If there were glitches in Allen’s singing, they were undetectable. She tackled the breathless (“Something’s Coming,” “Another Hundred People”) with power; the comical (“Broadway Baby,” “Can That Boy Fox Trot”) with wit; and the serious (“Send in the Clowns,” “Losing My Mind”) with deep emotion.

Allen is more than a singer, however. Her actorly chops proved useful in her duets with guest artist Scott Logsdon (left), including the very excellent “You Must Meet My Wife” and “The Little Things.” Lyric baritone Logsdon also delivered a solo number, “Marry Me a Little.”

Another contributing artist was soprano Patricia Roberts (left), whose duet with Allen, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” combined rich humor with sharp timing.

Interestingly, the final three selections all derived from Anyone Can Whistle, Sondheim’s most famous flop, which lasted nine performances on Broadway in 1964. The trio of singers’ group rendition of that show’s title tune was a sheer delight. This is one of the composer’s almost legendary songs, a fine little ballad with poignance and--especially for the often overly complex Sondheim--an accessible warmth and structural simplicity. Nashville Opera choral director Amy Tate Williams provided the original arrangement for three voices, and that was a fabulous surprise.

Finally, let us not overlook accompanist Chris Rayis, a Belmont composition major with a confessed “deep adoration” of Sondheim and definitely the skill to have a go at the master’s intricate solo piano. If anyone had the tightrope act of the evening, it was Rayis. Happy to say, he never wavered through all of the tricky filigree that adorns these pieces, which, as it is, are written in challenging keys and require deft rhythmic control from the instrumentalist.

There was no encore, but--no surprise--there was a standing ovation.

Send in the Sondheim
Nancy Allen in Recital
Belmont University School of Music
Belmont Mansion, Nov. 14, 2011, 7:30 p.m.

Featuring: Scott Logsdon & Patricia Roberts
Piano: Chris Rayis


Scores.fm said...

Hi Martin. How would one go about contacting you? I can't find an email address anywhere. o_0

Martin Brady said...

I believe there's an email link in my Blogger profile, but if not, I can be reached at martin.brady1@comcast.net or, presumably, through Facebook under Martin A. Brady.