BWW Review: ICT Mounts Pleasant but Overly Staged SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM
In a long line of musical revues honoring Stephen Sondheim, which started in the 70s with the brilliant Side by Side by Sondheim - so much attention; is he a God? - comes the Los Angeles premiere of Sondheim on Sondheim that lets the audience hear anecdotes from the horse's mouth. There is a screen onstage with a video projected: snippets of Sondheim being interviewed in his studio, that are interspersed front and center with a bevy of his hit songs from just about all of his musicals both famous and lesser-known. The songs are performed by six actors/singers who watch the video when onstage and then sing, or make a variety of entrances and exits throughout the two-hour show. A hit onstage in New York in 2010, the show had multi screens and a revolving stage. At ICT, Long Beach audience is treated to the low-budget version. Some of it works well...and the rest...well, we're watching Lord Sondheim, so theatre buffs are bound to be happy, no matter what.
The staging by DJ Gray bothers me quite a lot.* There is a very wide staircase stretching from stage right to stage left, in front of the projection screen, leading down to the mainstage. Actors must go up and down these stairs fairly consistently. This automatically puts them at a distance from us, as they spend too much time traveling to and fro. We do not get the intimacy that was so infectious in Side by Side by Sondheim. No reflection on the performers! They are doing their job at their best level; it's too big and grande a staging ... totally unnecessary for what should be an intimate revue between singers and audience. Keep it simple: put them on swivel chairs and make them as relaxed as Sondheim!
Sondheim on Sondheim is of course magical when Sondheim is speaking. He may be a God in the music world, but when was the last time you heard God say that he has been thinking about putting a box of his fingernail clippings into the Smithsonian? He has a deprecating sense of humor and comes off a real first-class human being, not self-conscious about being seen lying down on his sofa after a nap, with his ever present yellow-notepad in hand. So sad to hear horror stories about his mother, who on the eve of open-heart surgery, told him her biggest regret in life was giving birth to him. Oy! Thankfully, young Stephen was taken into the Oscar Hammerstein family after his parents' divorce and father figure Hammerstein, Sondheim claims, taught him everything he knows about music...and life. Nice to hear Sondheim talk about loving his collaborations as opposed to going solo...these collaborators were his surrogate family. Also interesting to note that he never fell in love until age 60. Openly gay, he confesses to a deeper feeling of love. Ah, the evolution of Company's Bobby! What did actually happen to him when the curtain came down? Did he finally find love?
What works best onstage in the revue is when Sondheim talks about a specific show and then the singers perform its numbers. For example, in Act II, he talks about Company that was plagued with problems and had several different plots and endings. The singers then perform songs that were cut: "Multitudes of Amys" and "Happily Ever After" as well as the actual finale "Being Alive". Also of note, he wrote "Ah, But Underneath" for Diana Rigg in the West End Follies, adding a new song to the original Broadway show. The song is then sung in combo with "In Buddy's Eyes". Sorry to hear that Sondheim found his collaboration with Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz, an artistic waste of time. Not that he didn't appreciate and love working with Rodgers; he just found the show a lovely little pastiche and not a notable artistic achievement. Perfection in art has been the quest for genius Sondheim, so it makes total sense that Sunday in the Park with George would be his favorite musical.
As far as the ensemble is concerned they all work well together and separately, under Gerald Sternbach's stellar musical direction. Stephanie Fredricks and Kevin McMahon are the standouts of the evening. Barbara Carlton Heart is a close runner-up with her dazzling "Losing My Mind" from Follies in combination with Fredricks singing "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along. Heart's "In Buddy's Eyes" is also a knockout. Jake Novak does very well with the comedic numbers especially "Franklin Shepard, Inc" from Merrily We Roll Along. Completing the cast are handsome Josh Wise, who is really a mismatch vocally for Sweeney Todd's "Epiphany", and perky Shaina Knox.
In my mind, they could leave the uneventful first act out of this one completely and just do Act II, where everything seems to gel. But don't forget it's fun just to watch and listen to the master open up about his work and his life. For that alone, Sondheim on Sondheim is a should see, especially for musical theatre buffs!
*An earlier version of this show Movin' On from the same creators of Side by Side by Sondheim, which originated in London, had a similar staircase, placing Sondheim on high as on an altar, but the basic approach on one level would bring Sondheim, the performers and the audience together in a more humanistic, intimate manner.