"You can't change the channel," advised Raúl Esparza, early in his performance Saturday night at CSUN's Valley Performing Arts Center. "If you don't like (Stephen) Sondheim, it's going to be a long night."
Esparza, a four-time Tony nominee and a favorite with Broadway audiences, loves Sondheim and sells his lyrics with a rare passion and clarity. But the Sondheim songs that Esparza admires the most are not, by and large, the most widely known.
For the most part, Esparza's repertoire was drawn more from Sondheim musicals in which he performed (Assassins, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George and Company) than from the Broadway legend's most popular work, such as Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and West Side Story.
To be sure, Esparza began the night with Something's Coming, Tony's prescient sensation in West Side Story. However, it soon became clear that the number was selected more for its symbolic usefulness as an all-purpose opener than because it represented the kind of Sondheim song most favored by Esparza. But for its over-the-top flamboyance, Esparza could well have substituted Gypsy's Everything's Coming Up Roses.
Next up was Not While I'm Around from Sweeney Todd, a song that manages to be both comforting and creepy when performed with subtle softness, just as Esparza did.
Still, if Esparza's goal was to expose the full house in the Main Theatre to the profound Sondheim, the master at exploring the human condition and dissecting emotions, the audience was more than willing to go along for the ride. Song after song was met with hearty applause and, ultimately, a standing ovation.
"It feels like you can never get to the bottom of these songs," Esparaza said."The greatest songs are like that."
Esparza's reverence for Sondheim's works was clear throughout the two-hour performance. Sharing the stage with only music director Mary Mitchell Campbell on a Stineway grand piano, he brought pitch-perfect power and seemingly effortless grace to every song. The most complicated lyrics and difficult notes fazed Esparza not in the least.
Perhaps this is because, for Esparza, Sondheim is more than a musical genius. Sondheim is also an enormous influence. From early failures to win a part in Sondheim productions to working alongside the master composer, Sondheim has been Esparza's North Star.
Time and again, Esparza shared insights gleaned from time spent with Sondheim. The anecdotes provided the framework for the performance and revealed the human side to one of Broadway's leading lights for more than half a century. "Maybe the title for this evening should be 'I Digress,'" Esparza joked at one point.
Digression or not, Esparza's recollections only added to the enjoyment of his performance. At one point, for example, Esparza sang the various songs that had been considered for the final number in Company, including Happily Ever After which was ultimately replaced by Being Alive.
Esparza's encore was a Sondheim song not written for Broadway but, instead, penned for the movie, Reds. The title, fittingly enough, was Goodbye For Now.