Sondheim on Sondheim

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

The latest revue featuring the music of Stephen Sondheim, Sondehim on Sondheim, receives its local premiere courtesy of International City Theatre (ICT). Produced in New York in 2010, the show featured a gifted cast of actor/singers and, most notably, occasioned the long-awaited return of Barbara Cook to a Broadway stage.

Cameron Mackintosh made his name as a producer with the first Sondheim revue, Side by Side by Sondheim. But the show, created in 1976, was quickly outdated as Sondheim continued to write memorable landmarks of musical theatre. This opened the market for other revues featuring songs used in Sondheim shows. Or, even more interestingly for Sondheim aficionados, songs cut from shows. “Marry Me a Little,” a song cut from Company, became so popular after its exposure in a revue that it was restored to the show.

Some of these revues forced the songs into newly constructed plotlines, while others simply focused on the music. Sondheim on Sondheim places the focus on the songs, but includes a surprise element—Stephen Sondheim, himself. The show is conceived around a series of digital recordings of Sondheim, in his Turtle Bay home, discussing his life and methods of creation. While much of this material is available in the numerous books written by or about Sondheim, watching the master speak is reason enough to see the show. There is also a delightful medley of YouTube performances of “Send in the Clowns.”

ICT’s cast of 6 (2 less than the Broadway production) throw themselves into the songs with gusto. The music chosen is a comprehensive overview of Sondheim’s current output, though many familiar early songs are absent and the numbers performed in their entirety tend to be from later shows. Completists should note than an understandably cut number from Gypsy is sung, while standards like “Being Alive” and “Send in the Clowns” are included to satisfy a more general audience.

Musically, numbers from integrated musicals often suffer a bit from being taken out of context, especially when the characters are complex. But Sondheim on Sondheim chooses to exacerbate that problem with radically different arrangements (by David Loud) for many of the songs, particularly at the top of the show. Rather than invigorating the songs, the arrangements tend to blur the dramatic intent. In fact, it isn’t until nearly the end of the first act, with a trio of songs from Passion, arguably Sondheim’s most difficult piece, that the show finds its dramatic footing.

Director/Choreographer DJ Gray worked on the original production and has brought a surprising amount of movement to the show. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to have spent much time on the interpretation of the songs. This leaves the performers to mine the complexities of the numbers to the best of their abilities with varied results.

Rising to the challenge, Kevin McMahon (still the best Henrik in A Little Night Music I’ve seen) brings a musical intelligence and a keen dramatic understanding to everything he does. Stephanie Fredricks lends a strong voice to numbers like “Not a Day Goes By” and capers ably with the guys in “Ah, But Underneath.” Shaina Knox sings prettily, but lacks dramatic focus. The same can be said about most of Jake Novak’s performance until he unveils a wistfully moving rendition of “Beautiful.” Barbara Carlton Heart is at her best in scenes opposite McMahon in the Passion section and with Novak in that aforementioned moment from Sunday in the Park with George. Josh Wise does his best vocal work with Road Show’s “The Best Thing that Ever has Happened,” but, though it’s not his fault, he is completely outmatched by the vocal and dramatic requirements of Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany.”

International City Theatre   October 16 – November 8, 2015