For his third cabaret act, Simply Sondheim, singer Donald Houtz chose to honor the music and lyrics of one of the most beloved and honored Broadway composers, Stephen Sondheim, who will celebrate his 85th birthday on March 22. Sondheim’s lyrics are never easy and his melodies can also be treacherous at times. I admire Mr. Houtz’s chutzpah and ambition, but for most of the evening at Sterling’s Upstairs at the Federal he just wasn’t up to the task he presented himself. His voice often flatted or alternately sharped. He wasn’t always able to hit the notes he aimed for. He had a pleasant stage presence and an enthusiastic crowd of followers present, but his patter (mostly about his neighbors) felt forced at times in order to shoehorn in the songs he chose to perform.
Mr. Houltz chose a wide variety of songs from well known shows such as Follies, Company and Sweeney Todd, as well as the more obscure Anyone Can Whistle and Frogs. Mr. Houtz even threw in songs Sondheim composed for the films The Seven Percent Solution and Dick Tracy. He actually fared better with the upbeat comic numbers such as “I Never Do Anything Twice” rather than with the ballads. The four piece band, Tom Zygmont on drums, Tim Emmons on bass and Andrew Conrad on woodwinds—all under the musical direction of pianist Steven Applegate—made the music soar. Unfortunately Mr. Houtz’s voice didn’t always hit the same musical heights.