Ken Haller once again delights a St. Louis audience with his very special evening of songs by Stephen Sondheim. He first presented this masterfully-crafted cabaret evening some seven years ago at the Kranzberg. Since then he performed it in New York. The show is well worthy of revival and Haller has found the perfect home for it in the delicious Emerald Room at the Monocle in the Grove neighborhood.
Haller is a remarkable fellow. Not only is he a veteran actor and singer, but he's a highly esteemed pediatrician, educator, and civic leader for several beneficent causes. You can occasionally catch him discussing health topics on the radio where he comes across as a highly articulate world-class expert. In the intimacy of a cabaret Ken Haller is witty, rather avuncular, and utterly charming. The evening we saw him Ken's sinuses were having a little battle with St. Louis's pollen situation -- but the good guys easily won that fight.
Haller is a lifelong Stephen Sondheim addict, and in selecting songs he committed himself to an evening of "pure Sondheim" -- that is, only songs for which Sondheim wrote both the music and the lyrics. Haller stalwartly resisted urgings to include any collaborative pieces -- or even some songs that have simply become too, too popular. So he treats us to many less familiar -- even obscure -- Sondheim pieces. There are a few program differences from that earlier appearance at the Kranzberg.
All of us folks who are tired of curtain speeches were delighted when Haller presented that de rigueur "turn off all those noisy things" request and other standard proscriptive messages in the form of the "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" from The Frogs. This is followed by a lively and life-affirming "Everybody Says Don't" from Anyone Can Whistle.
From here he proceeds to introduce us to songs from a full half-century of shows by this remarkable man. Some of these shows have a very curious history: The Frogs is an adaptation from Aristophanes, which opened in swimming pool at Yale. Saturday Night is a 1954 show which died aborning; it never opened, because the producer died.
"What More Do I Need?" is a lovely romantic number from Saturday Night. There are other love songs, such as "Not a Day Goes By" and "We Had a Good Thing Going" from Merrily We Roll Along. Some of Sondheim's songs are quite word-heavy -- the busy lyric easily dominating the melody. Such a one is "With So Little to Be Sure of" from Anyone Can Whistle; it's almost like recitative. But Sondheim's lyrics are always so meaningful, and Ken Haller presents them with such understanding -- and such enunciation.
There's that boisterously New Yorkish and theatrical song, "Broadway Baby" from Follies. There is a show-stopping rapid-fire patter song -- "I'm Not Getting Married Today" from Company. Haller delivers this with such astonishing, scorching velocity that he makes Gilbert and Sullivan's "Modern Major General" seem positively lento. It's hilarious!
There are a variety of other songs -- thoughtful, lonely, funny, loving. But by far the gem of the evening is one where Haller just can't resist breaking his own rule against really popular stuff; his spoofing version of "Send in the Clowns" thoroughly skewers Barbara Streisand who successfully asked Sondheim to write new lyrics just for her. It's sheer brilliance!
When Ken Haller sings "Nothin's Gonna Harm You, Not While I'm Around," he sings it from the perspective of a pediatrician comforting a sick child. Sometimes Ken will, very concisely, give an unfamiliar deep insight into a song -- as when he summarizes "The Ladies Who Lunch" as criticism of others, then shame, then self acceptance.
Marty Fox does splendid work at the piano -- and he sings a bit too. Fox, by the way, will soon appear as the lead in Insight's upcoming production of Company.
The whole evening is presented with great care, intelligence and charm. It's called Song By Song By Sondheim. It's Ken Haller in cabaret at the Monocle. It played on April 28, 2016.