Eleri Ward (Acoustic Sondheim: Live from Brooklyn) | Review
Monday, August 7, 2023
What makes this so effective is Ward’s ability to convey the drama
Sondheim wrote just one song for voices with guitar accompaniment. ‘Unworthy of Your Love’, from Assassins, is a warped love song sung by two people who sought to shoot two American Presidents, and its opening repeated guitar riff is co-opted as the accompaniment to the cunning ‘Being Alive’/‘Sorry-Grateful’ medley on Eleri Ward’s live recording of her compelling performances of Sondheim songs.
Making the demon barber’s song yet more contemplative, she highlights her intimate, inward-looking quality but never at the expense of meaning
These remarkable, beautifully crafted tracks are folk-style reinventions. And it’s no surprise that they come from a singer/musician who is also an actor since what makes them so effective is her ability to convey their drama.
Paying Sondheim the compliment of making you hear how consistent his score for Company is, she doesn’t just place one song after the other, but weaves verses of ‘Being Alive’ and ‘Sorry-Grateful’ in and out of one another in a way that’s lyrically illuminating while illustrating that she understands the structure of each song and its emotional trajectory up to its tender and deftly incomplete finish.
She absolutely knows how to use her voice to best effect. While mostly deploying her smooth low register complete with Country-style twang and an echo of Country/folk artist Mary Chapin Carpenter, she touches in detail with an airy head voice. But there’s real power too, used to highly expressive effect.
It’s there in the anger of her ‘Send in the Clowns’. It’s a sign of how successfully she makes songs her own while remaining true to the source that this, written in short bursts for Glynis Johns who had almost no sustained vocal power, sounds so fresh in the throat of a real singer. Less wistful, more fierce, she ups the emotions before pulling right back, her simple guitar reduced still further to let the song’s thoughts hang in the air.
The most ambitious track is Ward’s medley from Into the Woods. Taking moments and lyrics from throughout the show and lacing them into ‘Children Will Listen’ to haunting effect is impressive. Doing it in five minutes flat is remarkable.
Not quite everything is at that exalted level of success. Her reconfigured harmonies occasionally rob songs of emotional difficulty, but the best rethinks are in a league all their own, especially the reprise of ‘Johanna’ from Sweeney Todd. Making the demon barber’s song yet more contemplative, she highlights her intimate, inward-looking quality but never at the expense of meaning.
It’s absolutely clear that Ward’s trio of Sondheim albums (this being the third and final volume) has not been a random choice. It’s a passion project, and if you’ve yet to encounter it, start right here, right now.
Cast Eleri Ward, Bobby Conte (special guest)