Do you realize how lucky we are? Lucky that we have lived in a time when Stephen Sondheim, arguably Broadway’s greatest lyricist and composer, has created some of the finest, most important shows ever. Lucky that we can see his influence on almost every musical currently playing in New York (just ask Lin-Manuel Miranda). And lucky that he is still around to tell his story (he turns 86 on March 22nd) and that freeFall Theatre has mounted a charming, beautifully realized celebration of his work entitled SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, conceived by James Lapine.
The show acts as sort of a companion piece to the composer’s two volume “autobiography,” Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. (If you have not read these two works, and Sondheim is someone you adore or at least want to learn more about, then stop reading this review and order those glorious books…Now! They are a constant pleasure, beautifully scribed, and act as a self-deprecating magnifying glass into the greatest genius whoever wrote a musical and created a crossword puzzle for New York magazine. It’s a page-turner, an extremely learned look at each treasure in Sondheim’s songbook.) Sondheim himself actually appears in SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM on six large video screens, in hilarious, revealing interviews that are played throughout the show. It’s more than just a mere revue; it’s like the most entertaining college course you’ll ever attend–Sondheim 101. But it’s the songs, and the eight interpreters of those songs, that get center stage.
Broadway veterans Ann Morrison, Larry Alexander and Kissy Simmons, along with the ultra-talented Eric Davis, Nick Fitzer, Nick Lerew, Kelly Pekar, and Amy Marie Stewart, tour us through this sort of stream-of-consciousness take on Sondheim’s life and work. Each of their songs, many of them not heard before, are joyfully interrupted by a Sondheim story or bon mot. These eight performances do sterling, lively work here, and in their hands, this production spotlights which Sondheim musicals emerge as the strongest…and a few of them that don’t.
Sondheim’s seemingly forgotten (but brilliant) Follies, and his most underrated work, Merrily We Roll Along, surface as the shows I most want to see again. The numbers presented from these shows in SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM were stellar. All eight performers make “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” (from Follies) a gorgeous creation. And the torchy duet between Morrison and Simmons on “Losing My Mind” (Follies) and “Not a Day Goes By” (Merrily We Roll Along) was simply exquisite.
Watching Merrily We Roll Along’s original Mary Flynn, Ann Morrison, sing one of the greatest pick-me-up-from-the-dumps songs, “Now You Know,” 35 years after the show notoriously flopped on Broadway (it still houses perhaps Sondheim’s strongest score), is worth the price of admission in and of itself. It’s a moment of celebration, like being able to watch Vivian Blaine, Guys and Dolls’ original Adelaide, sing “Adelaide’s Lament.” This is Morrison’s chance to shine with her signature rendition of one of Sondheim’s best.
My favorite two songs of the night also belong to Merrily: The finest version of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” I have ever heard, brilliantly performed by Lerew, and the cast absolutely owning the incredible “Opening Doors.” Merrily We Roll Along is waiting for someone to revive it; it’s that good a show that just has never really been given its due. It’s time for some local group to resurrect it (hint, hint).
Eric Davis is positively horrifying (in a good way) as the demon barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Toddremains not just my favorite Sondheim show, but my favorite musical of all time period. It’s his masterpiece. (To put it in perspective, Sweeney Todd joins The Godfather and Gravity’s Rainbow as the best work in any genre produced in the 1970′s.) SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM includes just one Sweeney tune, but it’s a doozy–the chilling “Epiphany.” Davis tears the song to shreds and is maniacally, psychotically stupendous. Even though SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is a revue with no plot, this stand-alone song was as blood-curdling and terrifying as if we were watching the entire cannibalistic meat-pie saga; it makes me want to see Davis in the blood-smeared part sometime, somewhere, anywhere (hint, hint).
Larry Alexander gets the honor of singing one of the most glorious Sondheim tunes–Company’s “Being Alive.” And boy, does he nail it!
Pekar, the epitome of loveliness, sings the little-known “Take Me to the World” from an early Sondheim production,Evening Primrose; it’s a quiet number, a hidden gem, and instantly had me going to my vast Sondheim collection to try to find a version of it. Pekar, Lerew, Fitzer and Stewart provide perfect harmonies in “Something’s Coming” (fromWest Side Story). The song is usually a solo by Tony, but here, with these four marvelous singers, it sounds like the Manhattan Transfer on a very good night.
“You Can Drive a Person Crazy,” from Company, is usually sung by Bobby’s girlfriends. Here, it becomes a game of eye-rolling one-upmanship between Eric Davis and Ann Morrison. “Smile Girls,” a song cut from Gypsy, is very entertaining with Morrison in the Ethel Merman role of Mama Rose and the rest of the cast in blonde Baby June-like wigs designed by Susan Haldeman (even a bearded Eric Davis dons one, which is a sight to behold); watching it, you realize why the number never made the Gypsy final cut.
The songs that represent Sondheim’s last masterwork, Assassins, also stood out. The haunting “Something Just Broke,” sung by the entire cast, and the edgy, thrilling rendition of “The Gun Song” (where a gun is pointed at the audience, be warned), made me want to feverishly persuade a local group to mount Assassins in the near future (hint, hint).
Songs from Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods (where at one point, the stunning Simmons sings the part of a sultry, sexually menacing Wolf), Road Show, Anyone Can Whistle and even Do I Hear a Waltz? are given first class treatment here. They make me want to rifle through my Sondheim albums and listen to the best that musical theatre has to offer.
However, some songs didn’t carry the power of the aforementioned winners, and some vocals were stronger than others. The numbers from one show in particular–the polarizing Passion–not just slowed SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM down but stopped it dead in its tracks. The four full Passion songs–four of them, but it felt like a lot more–seemed to last an eternity and just did not work in the context. After this revue, Passion is the only Sondheim show I really don’t feel the need to re-experience. SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM could have included just one of its songs–probably “Loving You”–and would have worked much better.
Putting something like this together with this excellent cast falls into the capable hands of director Chris Crawford, who keeps the pace up without the whole enterprise ever feeling rushed. Although there is not a lot of choreography, the stage movement of the performers works as well as it can on Eric Davis‘ ingenious but perhaps not actor-friendly set (featuring various levels carpeted with enlarged re-creations of Sondheim’s writings and notes). The tech, under James Zervas guidance, is strong and the lighting is appropriate.
The band, under the brilliant musical direction of Michael Raabe, is wonderful: Diana Belcher and Bobby DeAngelis on reeds; Marta Bukacek on violin; John Chatterton on the cello and glockenspiel; Irving Goldberg on bass; and Thomas Guthrie, along with Raabe, on keyboard. The show sounds sensational, and all the elements rightfully come together.
Despite one minor technical glitch on opening night, the videos of Sondheim are vastly entertaining. The composer comes across as extremely charismatic and awkward, intellectual and blunt, arrogant and quirky. His stories range from the hilarious (Ethel Merman‘s confrontation with anti-profanity TV queen, Loretta Young), to the revealing (Sondheim falling in love for the first time at the age of 60, giving hope to all late-bloomers who think that love has bypassed them), and ultimately the heartbreaking (the last words his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, wrote to him, as well as his toxic relationship with his mother).
If there is a villain in Sondheim’s life, it would be his mother. His tale of a horrific letter she left for him makes me shudder; she wrote him that the one mistake in her life was giving birth to him. It’s beyond shocking, one of the worst matriarchal moments of all time, making Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest look like Carol Brady.
But think about it. His mother didn’t want him and wished he had never been born. Imagine if that had been the case; imagine a world without Sondheim. It’s unfathomable. It’s like imagining a world without Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or no William Shakespeare and Hamlet. A world without Sondheim would be a sad, cold world…a world not really worth living. We would function, of course, but so much of the joy of the past fifty years would be lost. Imagine different lyrics to West Side Story or Gypsy. Imagine never seeing the funniest musical of all time, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Imagine no cutting-edge Company (no “Being Alive”!), no Follies, no “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music. Imagine Sweeney Todd as a forgotten non-musical. Imagine no “Finishing the Hat,” no Into the Woods, no Assassins, and no Oscar-winning “Sooner or Later.” Imagine musical theatre never growing up, where Rent or Hamilton may never have happened. It would be a barren dystopia in the world of musical theatre, and I find it quite a disturbing thought.
So, thankfully, his rotten mother’s wish never came true, and we are all so fortunate that the greatest single person in musical theatre history was gladly unleashed upon us in our lifetime. And you can see his genius on full display in the marvelous SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at freeFall. Watching it, you don’t need to imagine a nightmare world where Sondheim is silenced. He’s still here, in all of his glory, and he’s ours.
SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM plays until April 10th at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg. For tickets, please call (727) 498-5205.