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Our Time

The New York Times

Sex-Role Reversals in Sondheim KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar Reflect a New Era

Friday, July 11, 2014 by Stephen Holden

“Our Time,” the opening number of KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar’s iconoclastic Stephen Sondheim show at the Laurie Beechman Theater on Wednesday evening, is the optimistic dawn-of-a-new-age anthem from “Merrily We Roll Along.” It’s the 1950s, and there are nothing but blue skies and bright futures ahead in the lives of its naïve musical-theater hopefuls gazing forward with starry-eyed confidence.

But it’s not so simple. A subversive double vision soon surfaces and drives the show, directed by Sondra Lee, on an alternative route. The future has already arrived. Great familiar songs are bent to reflect the era of same-sex marriage, gender fluidity and the dissolution of traditional roles. Once-unquestioned verities about what it means to be a man and a woman are under siege.

The evening began conventionally enough, with breezy early Sondheim songs about New York City taken at a breathless clip by the singers and the pianist Jon Weber.

Its vision suddenly warped when Mr. Harnar sang two ballads, “Loving You” and “Losing My Mind,” usually attached to women, with a quiet, troubled intensity. It became surreal when he affected an old woman’s croak for “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues,” from “Follies,” followed by his sober, introspective “Send In the Clowns” set to dissonant jazz harmonies.

Ms. Sullivan’s sly, seductive “Pretty Women” and “Johanna” infused both these ballads from “Sweeney Todd” with an almost predatory erotic subtext as she delivered the warning, “I’ll steal you, Johanna” as a sexual provocation.

In a medley of songs (mostly from “Company”) about marital anxiety, sung by Mr. Harnar, the groom (instead of the bride) balked at the last minute.

Ms. Sullivan astutely reinterpreted “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Being Alive” as wised-up, bitterly cynical expressions of marital boredom and stagnation by a wife feeling trapped in her marriage. In Mr. Harnar’s “Could I Leave You?” the song’s threat was issued by an older man’s angry, avaricious younger male partner.

If the show occasionally pushed too hard to surprise, it worked. The considerable acting talents of Ms. Sullivan, who has never been more fearless, and Mr. Harnar gave the songs a bite that left tooth marks.

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