Jeff Harnar
“I Know Things Now”
The Blue Strawberry, St. Louis, MO
January 14, 2022

By Katie McGrath

Stephen Sondheim devotees and neophytes alike were given the opportunity to experience the essence of his lyrics and music thanks to Jeff Harnar’s illuminating show, “I Know Things Now, Jeff Harnar sings Sondheim,” this past January 14th at Blue Strawberry.

Sondheim has certainly been under-represented here in St. Louis, with his work running just twice in the last twenty years at the Fox Theater, the area’s largest venue for Broadway productions. But, thanks to Scott Miller’s New Line Theater, Tim Schall’s annual St. Louis Cabaret Conference, The Gateway Men’s Chorus and our own Sondheim scholar-in-residence, Dr. Ken Haller, lovers of Sondheim could find him, if only at times on a song-by-song basis.

In “I Know Things Now,” however, Stephen Sondheim is the main course, and in some thirty songs from thirteen Sondheim musicals, Harnar’s punctilious deconstruction and reassembly of this music delivers a piercing, hilarious, heart-breaking and sometimes maniacal glimpse into the composer/lyricist’s psyche. Harnar and Music Director Jon Weber weave seamless movements of songs based on lyric connection, rather than theatrical plot. The result is a series of chapters about long-term friendship, the joy (and isolation) of single life, the misery and comfort of relationships and the fear of losing them all. The thrill of the chase, and the dreariness of the catch.

Early in the show, following Harnar and Weber’s charming “Old Friends,” Harnar told his audience, “The words and music are Stephen Sondheim’s. But the story is mine, and it takes place in New York City.” That was the beginning and end of Harnar’s spoken narrative. From that point forward his voice and body, especially his eyes, were deeply passionate instruments of communication in the language of Sondheim. Harnar didn’t count on anyone’s familiarity with the material. There weren’t any inside jokes – it was all completely accessible and enjoyable. His natural grace and fleeting embodiment of characters made scoundrels lovable, drunks sympathetic and narcissists simply misunderstood souls who meant well.

Every one of the seventy-one minutes was riveting. The audience’s enthusiastic, (and second) standing ovation was rewarded by the funniest piece of the night, Rick Crom’s “Sondheim’s Oklahoma,” in which Harnar assumed the cowboy character of Curly McLain channeling Mandy Patinkin. Sounds crazy? It was. And beautiful.

Stephen Sondheim, widely praised for “reinventing American musical theater, “ died this past November 26, 2021, but the flame of Sondheim’s legacy, burning bright inside Jeff Harnar is his gift to us all. May he continue to carry the torch far and wide.

 

Featured Picture: Maryann Lopinto
Internal Pictures: David Goodman