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MSQ Review: Raul Esparza – Valley Performing Arts Center
Singing Sondheim with passion and grace
When I saw Barbra Streisand a little over a week ago, I spoke to friends who talked about how weepy they became during her classic songs. I thought she was great, but I didn’t connect emotionally. Is there something wrong with me? Am I incapable of feeling emotion during a song? It turns out, the answer to those questions is a resounding “No,” as I discovered during a stunning concert by Broadway star Raúl Esparza.
Accompanied beautifully by Mary-Mitchell Campbell on piano, Mr. Esparza (who TV audiences may know as DA Rafael Barba on Law & Order: SVU) took us on a tour of Stephen Sondheim’s songs. In his opening, “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, I found Mr. Esparza a bit manic and I was concerned. Thankfully he settled in for a spectacular evening of songs and stories.
Mr. Esparza appeared in Company on Broadway and Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George at the Sondheim Festival ten years ago in Washington, D.C. The experience paid off. From Merrily he effortlessly performed “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” which isn’t easy to pull off. From Sunday her performed Lesson #8 (the first time I found tears on my face) and Finishing the Hat. Songs from Road Show, Sweeney Todd, Dick Tracy (“What Can You Lose” – more tears) were also included.
The highlight came during the second half of the show when Mr. Esparza performed all four songs that at one time served as the last song in Company. The first was “Marry Me a Little” (more tears just as I had when I saw him in the show) followed by “Multitudes of Amys” (tears again) and then “Happily Ever After.” “Being Alive,” the final song in that show, also earned my tears. I have heard countless versions of “Being Alive,” but Mr. Esparza owns this song. For my money, no one performs it better.
There’s a logical reason for that assessment. Raúl Esparza is an actor who can sing his guts out. He’s not a singer who can act. Stephen Sondheim writes character songs; they aren’t just little ditties. Whether he was George or Toby or Charley or Bobby, he tackled each and every song as an expression of character.
Mr. Esparza is phenomenally talented and I hope at some point he and Audra McDonald can do a show together. Imagine seeing the two foremost actor/singers on Broadway working side by side -- whether it’s "Side by Side” by Sondheim" or not.
Mr. Esparza closed with a little known song from Warren Beatty’s film Reds, “Goodbye for Now.” It was moving and my last chance for tears. With any luck, it is just a temporary goodbye, as I’ll see him anytime he comes to town. Barbra may have sung “No More Tears,” but Raúl Esparza earned them.