Friday, April 23, 2010

REVIEW: Sondheim on Sondheim

Review of the April 10 matinee preview performance. At Studio 54 on Broadway, New York City. 2 hours, 20 minutes, with an intermission. Starring Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott. Musical staging by Dan Knechtges. Conceived and directed by James Lapine.

In many ways, the new musical revue, Sondheim on Sondheim, currently being presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company is typical of the genre.  Great singers bring a certain catalogue of songs to life, reinterpreting them and taking them out of the context from which they originally came.  There is a certain smooth sophistication, almost detached coolness about the whole affair.  Were the attitude any more heightened, one might knock it, calling it "cruise ship material."  But, under the wise, and vastly knowledgeable direction of James Lapine (and smart musical stager Dan Knechtges), one could hardly compare this to a Love Boat show.  Both Lapine and Knechtges instead are giving a nod to the genre's history, while sweeping us into the 21st century, and allowing us to remember revues past briefly before transporting us into a new age: respectful, but showy, inventive, but grounded, and with a technological flair akin to the first time Broadway saw a huge tire float effortlessly above the stage.  More about that later, though.

The Company

There have been several revues that have tapped into this same catalogue.  Some have eschewed the trappings of "revueishness" by concocting some sort of vague character and story structure to beef up the evening, others have been more museum-like in their recreation of scenes, and others have been a parade of stars singing the hell out of the songs to show us just how brilliantly they work out of the context of the show they came from.  This performance borrows ever so slightly from the latter two types, and thankfully, lets another character put it all together, as it were.  That character is Stephen Sondheim himself. 

Through vintage interviews - intentionally picked, I think, to garner a giggle and to point out that even way back when, the man was a genius - and more current one on one interview footage filmed and edited  to be part of this show specifically, Sondheim guides us through his upbringing as an only child, a child of divorce and the surrogate parenting of no less than Oscar Hammerstein.  All of this is old news to Sondheim fans, but what might be surprising is hearing his voice telling us.  Equal parts humility, self-deprecation and a wink and a smile, Mr. Sondheim is both candid about his life and is squarely where he should be at his young age - fully ok with himself and his accomplishments.  Don't misunderstand.  He has the same regrets, the same wishes, the same "holes" that still need filling that most of us do.  He is candid - to a point - about his romantic life, and lays one hell of a shocker out about his mother.  But all in all, it would appear that he is at least happy with what his life tirned out to be, and is even willing to poke fun at himself. There is a particularly funny set up for intermission and the start of act two (I will not give it away, but it is very cool), and he has written an absolutely brilliant parody of himself and his style in a brand new song for the show which confronts the Newsweek (or is it the New Yorker?) cover that asks, "Is Sondheim a God?"  The song answers, "Yes."  It is hilarious!  (Please let them record this!)

Sondheim with "the co-stars": Euan Morton, Leslie Kritzer,
Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott

Of course, there are many reasons to hope that the show succeeds and makes a recording - ask any Sondheim fan why.  But let me help enumerate them:  Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott.  Even though the first three names are above the title, it would be misleading and a slight to the cast not to say that they are a true company.  All of them have solos.  All of them have distinct moments to shine, and all have times to support the others.  Another key reason to hope for a recording is the quality of the musicians who play the show (orchestrations by Michael Starobin) and the terrific mix of tradtional and unique arrangements of the song selection (music direction and arrangements by David Loud).  There is literally something for everyone in this show.

For those only familiar with Sondheim's better known music, there is "Something's Coming" in a jazzy, but not to far off quartet arrangement for Kritzer, Morton, Mackey and Scott; a traditional "Broadway Baby" delivered by the real thing, Barbara Cook; and a hilarious montage of YouTube footage of everyone from Sinatra to a little girl singing "Send in the Clowns" before Ms. Cook does her own fine version (though the better version is downtown a few blocks, sung by Ms. Zeta-Jones).  For Sondheim appreciators there is a fun glimpse at a Tony nominated turn when Ms. Williams sings "Children Will Listen," as well as a few segments that Sondheim guides us through that shows how songs are written, replaced, rewritten and replaced until we get to what we are used to hearing.  One such case is the genesis of the opening number for Forum..., a well-know story about how the show just didn't work until Jerome Robbins said to write a bawdy low comedy number.  We are then treated to three songs that were tried and thrown out until "Comedy Tonight" stuck for good.  More interesting, mainly because it isn't as commonly known, is the genesis of Bobby's "Being Alive" in Company, including a song that actually used the same lyrics to a different tempo and melody.  Similarly, we get to see what used to be there in place of "Not Getting Married," a far less exciting (though here well sung by Ms. Williams) number called "The Wedding is Off."

"The Girls": Erin Mackey, Vanessa Williams,
Leslie Kritzer and Barbara Cook

There is also plenty of Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, and Company.  You might expect that there would be more Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods.  There is only "Epiphany" from the former, and snippets of songs from the latter.  And "Epiphany" provides the evening's one low point.  Tom Wopat does his best with it, but ultimately fails.  Loud singing and angry pacing back and forth is not what this number needs, and it falls with a loud thud.  I was surprised that Norm Lewis didn't get that number, as he has played the role to some acclaim several times before, and "A Little Priest" with him and Ms. Williams could have been a scream.  There is almost nothing, except a few bars in the "overture" from Pacific Overtures, and only the title number from Anyone Can Whistle, though the way that number is presented is literally a show-stopper, which I will not reveal here.  But it is a wonderful doozy!

Although I wished for more, because it is a personal favorite, what there is of Assassins - "The Gun Song" and "Something Just Broke" is powerfully staged and shows just how brilliant Sondheim's work is both in and out of context.  Smartly, two of Sondheim's least successful shows, but both full of promise - Passion and Merrily We Roll Along - are given longer segments, and are semi- to fully staged.  Merrily has the entire "Opening Doors" sequence and the entire "Franklin Shepard, Inc." number, providing an opportunity to shine for Morton, Scott, Kritzer and fun turns by Wopat, Williams and Mackey.  There are also beautifully sung and nicely arranged versions of "Not a Day Goes By," sung by Ms. Cook and offering us a glimpse of the Cook of yesteryear and full of confidence, and "So Now You Know," cheekily sung by Ms. Kritzer, and of course, "Old Friends" was terrific as well.  The Passion sequences give audiences a real chance at warming up to the piece, with Fosca - again beautifully sung by Cook, and Giorgio - excellently sung by Lewis.  The song "Happiness" is given special attention and a great new arrangement such that without changing a word, the song is sung in duet by man/woman, man/man, woman/woman (and even a threesome at one point) pairings.  The result is not only a wonderfully sung piece, but some tongue and cheek humor that mirrors Mr. Sondheim's narration throughout.

Tom Wopat and Company in "Assassins"

All of the performers are first rate, top to bottom, and again, it really is misleading to think that the three names above the title are somehow grander than the rest.  Though, if I had to name one stand out performance, it would have to be Vanessa Williams.  This woman has a glorious voice, and astounding presence and an instant rapport with both cast and audience.  She, given the right vehicle, could be on par with LuPone and Lansbury.  As it is, she simply commands the stage every time she is on it, and still knows how to give stage when she is not the focus.  Leslie Kritzer continues to be an actress to watch.  She gets bigger and better in every show she's in - she will be a star.  Even though he provides the show's one real misstep, Tom Wopat is still a force to be reckoned with.  And I know I am committing some form of blasphemy here, but overall, I just don't see why Barbara Cook is mentioned often in the same breath with Angela Lansbury (aside from their age being similar, Cook is no Lansbury) or even Mary Martin or Ethel Merman.  She has relatively few theatre credits to her name, and really only one iconic role - if that - playing second fiddle to a real legend, Robert Preston.  Her performance, even this far into previews, is often tentative - she messed up the lyrics to "You Could Drive a Person Crazy", and it was slowed down and she was repeating after Tom Wopat when it happened.  But the cast clearly adores her, gently guiding her from place to place around the set and offstage, and the audience eats her up.  All of that said, she does have impeccable timing in a few comedy bits, and when she is sure of the material, as in the Passion sequences, you can kind of get why she is so beloved.

Vanessa Williams with Norm Lewis,
Matthew Scott and Euan Morton

But the real star of the evening, as it should be, is Sondheim himself.  Literally larger than life, he narrates from giant plasma televisions that connect, pull apart and reconfigure constantly.  Add to that a revolving set that also features more than a dozen plasma televisions set amongst platformed playing areas and steps, and the set adds interest, gives focus, and serves the piece in a brilliantly unobtrusive way.  Kudos to set designer Beowulf Boritt, lighting designer Ken Billington and video and projection designer Peter Flaherty for wrapping this musical theatre gift into such an interesting and smart package.

This is by far the best of the non-traditonal offerings of the season.  It will be interesting to see how the Tony committee decides on where this fits in the spectrum of shows.  How appropriate considering that the man whose life's work is the subject of this show has never really fit any traditional definiton of theatre!  As the song from Road Show says, Mr. Sondheim, you just may be the "best thing that ever has happened" to musical theatre.  Thank you.


(Photos by Richard Termine)

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