BWW REVIEW: Stephen Sondheim [sort of] comes to Symphony Hall in SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM
Theatre people love memorializing the living titans of our craft, and no one has received more industry recognition than Stephen Sondheim. The composer/lyricist has earned buckets of Tonys and Grammys in addition to some of the highest accolades such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom (thanks, Obama!), the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and he even has a Broadway Theatre named after him. His works have been celebrated with countless productions spanning the globe, revived frequently in New York and reworked into musical revues with titles like; SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM (1973), MARRY ME A LITTLE (1980) and PUTTING IT TOGETHER (1993).One of the latest in this series of revues is SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, a brainchild of frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, which premiered on Broadway in 2010. Reorchestrated to fit the Boston Pops, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM played a two-night engagement at Symphony Hall on June 15 and June 16 under the direction of Sarna Lapine and conducted by Keith Lockhart. The premise of SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is similar to the musical reviews which came before it by pulling from the composer's catalog and mixing it together with a thin story all while showcasing some of the top vocal talents of our time. SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM attempts to make a detour from this generic path by presenting itself as a "Documentary Revue" with the inclusion of video interviews (some old, some new) of Sondheim himself acting as the evening's narrator. This decision to strike at something new would have been more lucid if a stronger relationship between the songs and video footage existed.
At points in the evening, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM wants to be a conventional biography. We begin with a brief background on Sondheim's childhood and get a sample of his early work before progressing forward, but the linear timeline breaks up once we reach the 70's and that's when the production gets cloudy. Other times, and most successfully, the video footage of Sondheim works as a commentary on the action unfolding. We get snippets of cut material from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM with an explanation from Sondheim. Though successful, this has already been seen in SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM. As I crave anything Sondheim and appreciate whenever given the opportunity to revisit his work in a new light, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is an unoriginal piece lacking a cohesive vision, and Sarna Lapine's unfortunate misdirection reduces its potential to a lethargic and under-rehearsed backers audition. Rather than trying to tackle the books identity crisis by wrestling a clear narrative out of it, Lapine piles on her own batch of problems. She directs each song as if it was living inside the world of the musical from which the song was pulled (How is anyone expected to deliver the full emotional wallop of PASSION with only a selection from "I Read?") and her musical staging was far too theatrical for a concert production. Is this even a concert? Who knows! In my quest for solace, I turned to the esteemed cast featuring Tony winners Ruthie Ann Miles (THE KING AND I) and Gabriel Ebert (MATILDA) and Tony nominees Carmen Cusack (BRIGHT STAR) and Phillip Boykin (PORGY AND BESS). Alas, even the talented cast was not without their troubles. Miles was underused, Ebert lost his confidence during a folly in the first act, and Cusack had difficulty blending. Only Boykin managed to deliver a strong performance but was spread thin with trying to carry the rest of his cast. Even more puzzling- Miles, Ebert, and Cusack appeared wooden onstage like they didn't want to be performing. This energy was blatant from the show's start and never resolved itself. Luckily, the supporting cast of Tanglewood's Music Center Vocal Fellows (Katherine Beck, Daniel McGrew, Fontina Naumenko, and William Socolof) managed to pick up the slack and delivered a charming rendition of Opening Doors from MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM moves to Tanglewood for a performance on July 8th and a remount is scheduled for the end of next month at the Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl. Name recognition for the LA cast has evolved to include Vanessa Williams (who appeared in the Original Broadway Cast), Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Matthew Morrison in addition to Carmen Cusack, and Ruthie Ann Miles. So fear not faithful Sondheim fans! This troubled production won't be the end of its road. Perhaps Lapine's greatest work is still to come as she attempts to craft a more even production. Luckily, she's got some of the best material at her disposal.