While terms like "living legend" are sometimes tossed around freely, three of them — Stephen Sondheim, Wynton Marsalis and Bernadette Peters — joined together Nov. 13 at New York City Center for A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair. This is neither a new musical, a revival, nor a standard songbook revue; it is, rather, a staged-and-sung chamber jazz rendition of a string of songs. A talented cast of eight and a dynamite band cycle through 28 pieces of Sondheim, giving us familiar songs in sometimes strikingly different styles, for seven performances through Nov. 17.
City Center Encores! and Jazz at Lincoln Center first joined together two Novembers ago, when respective artistic directors Jack Viertel and Marsalis devised Cotton Club Parade. This revue met such a strong response that it was remounted at City Center for a second pre-Thanksgiving engagement last November. Ten days ago, it made a triumphant leap to the Brooks Atkinson on Broadway, under the new title After Midnight.
For their second offering, Viertel and Marsalis have turned to the work of Sondheim, a great favorite of Encores! audiences. Viertel conceived the show in collaboration with Peter Gethers (Old Jews Telling Jokes) and director John Doyle (who has done notable productions of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, Company, Passion and Road Show). Music director Marsalis assembled the band, oversees the music, and arranged and orchestrated a quarter of the evening. He's also playing the night away, up on the bandstand; that knockout trumpet solo in "Who's That Woman?" is presumably him.
A bed and a chair, stationed on opposite sides of the stage just below the bandstand, serve as the chief props of the evening. This "New York Love Affair" is a love affair between different configurations of the four singers (each of whom have ghosts, like in Follies), as well as a love affair with New York. To that end, there are nonstop projections designed by Steve Channon which include sweeping present-day views of Manhattan. (The video is so present-day that theatre district shots include the marquee of the yet-to-preview The Bridges of Madison County.)
Peters, not surprisingly, gets the perennial showstoppers "Broadway Baby" and "The Ladies Who Lunch." Wearing a dress of shocking pink, she is in especially good form here; "Broadway Baby" brings to mind the insouciance she brought to the revival of On The Town back in 1971. Norm Lewis, late of The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, showcases his voice with "So Many People" and "I Remember." Jeremy Jordan, who has taken the town by storm in recent seasons with Newsies and Bonnie & Clyde, demonstrates a different side of his talent with effective renditions of "Giants in the Sky" and "Losing My Mind." The big surprise here is the fourth member of the quartet, Cyrille Aimée. A jazz singer with no theatrical experience, Aimée more than holds her own with "Live Alone and Like It" and a show-stopping "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" done in 1950s style, complete with scat. The four ghost-dancers (Meg Gillentine, Tyler Hanes, Grasan Kingsberry and Tony-nominee Elizabeth Parkinson) are effective as well, especially when Marsalis gives choreographer Parker Esse instrumentals like "That Old Piano Roll" and a stunning version of "Who's That Woman?"
A Bed and A Chair is built, conceptually, on jazz, and the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is a major asset. Not only do they play the show impeccably, Marsalis and his on-stage musicians did most of the sterling arrangements. David Loud, who understudied the role of Charley Kringas in the original Merrily We Roll Along, is the conductor and music supervisor. Half of the songs come from Company and Follies; most of the other Sondheim musicals are represented, including the lesser-known Passion and Road Show (due presumably to the Doyle connection). No Sunday in the Park with George or Pacific Overtures, though.