The musicals of Stephen Sondheim have been having a love affair with New York -- and New York with them -- since the first lyrics he wrote for "West Side Story." And songs from those musicals have been plucked out and strung together as thematic revues at least as far back as "Side by Side by Sondheim" in 1976.
The new twist in "A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair," a joint project of City Center's Encores! and Wynton Marsalis' marvelous Jazz at Lincoln Center, is to filter more than two dozen songs through jazz sensibilities and arrangements. Alas, although the 90-minute, four-character song-and-dance cycle is filled with isolated pleasures, most provided by Bernadette Peters at her most musical and irresistible, the coupling of jazz and Sondheim feels like an incompatible affair.
True, I am a bit of a prude about promiscuous Sondheim stylizations -- even if he, at least here, is not. He wrote these songs this way because that's the way he wanted them. The art and the challenge come from finding individuality within the form and the rhythmic elasticity of gems that, most often, are little plays all their own.
The first-rate onstage orchestra jarringly blasts reorchestrations over important lyrics. And the cool, suave improvisations clash with the modern, nervous ambivalence in Sondheim's I-need-you/go-away love songs.
Director John Doyle's staging includes aerial New York video that floats beautifully in a large picture frame. But the images treat the lyrics so literally that the show turns into an illustrated edition of easy words. Someone sings "bird," we see a bird. "Grass" shows us grass, and snow and leaves and sky, etc., as if imagining such concepts were just too difficult.
The show's concept -- an onstage bed and a chair -- comes from a line in "Broadway Baby," which Peters slithers around with nuance and a wink. Gifted young Jeremy Jordan seems so respectful of the event that he doesn't have much fun until "Buddy's Blues." Norm Lewis gets all the noble, mopey songs, especially from "Passion." The only singer who genuinely gets with the program is Cyrille Aimée, a French jazz artist who isn't too intimidated to scat.
Compared with the emotional complexity of the songs, choreography for four fine dancers feels like filler. With Sondheim and Marsalis, our world does indeed have, as the song says, "Giants in the Sky." That doesn't mean, however, that they should jam together.
WHAT "A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair"
WHERE New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., through Sunday
INFO $30-$200; 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org
BOTTOM LINE Sondheim and jazz: an incompatible affair