Review: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at Kauffman Center For The Arts

A Concert Remembrance by James Lapine

By: May. 11, 2023
Review: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at Kauffman Center For The Arts
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We lost a giant of the arts on November 26, 2021. Stephen Sondheim was ninety-one years old. Now eighteen months later, Lyric Opera has produced James Lapine's 2008 retrospective SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM of his friend's life work.

Review: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at Kauffman Center For The Arts
Rachel Bay Jones

This too rarely produced remembrance was offered at the Kauffman Center featuring eight, excellent singers mainly from the world of musical theater backed up by the outstanding Kansas City Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andy Einhorn on a bare stage, save a few stools, and a projection screen flown upstage.

For all Sondheim's success, few of his tunes crossed-over into the popular space. The portfolio is legendary to people who value musical theater. Sondheim himself said that his only popular hit was "Send In The Clowns" from A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. It crossed into the popular realm two years after it was performed on Broadway as a folk melody sung by Judy Collins and later as a ballad by Frank Sinatra.

Sondheim was one of those people who never seemed too impressed with his own worth. He was a very generous individual. Dozens of very accomplished performers, directors, and producers had only kind things to say about the man.

For us, Stephen talked about his work in his own quiet way, and that is magic of this concert style production. Projected on that upstage screen are clips in which he shared his process in his own quiet, insightful, charming, way.

The revue is presented in two acts with a total of thirty-one separate compositions. Sondheim wrote differently from other composers. This is not easy music for the singers. The time signatures float all over. The style is narrative. The range can be extreme. Each piece deliberately advances the story Sondheim is telling. The range of the stories he selected to retell were almost all previously published in other forms.

Review: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at Kauffman Center For The Arts
L to R: Tamar Greene, Daniel Lopez, and Danny Kornfeld

As a singer, you have to know this stuff cold. Should you drop a lyric, the nature of the story telling makes it hard to sneak your way back into the flow un-noticed. This makes each piece, important, rewarding and difficult.

Sondheim's first big hit was as lyricist with Leonard Bernstein when he was asked to write lyrics for WEST SIDE STORY. Sondheim's surrogate Dad, Oscar Hammerstein II, recommended he take the job while he dithered on whether he should work with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. WEST SIDE STORY worked out pretty well. Bernstein and Robbins had something to teach a young man after all..

Following were an amazing range of projects. A few of his successes included A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (based on the ancient Romans), INTO THE WOODS (Grimm's Fairy Tales), SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (about a nineteen century Paris painting, SWEENEY TODD (based on a nineteenth century murder melodrama), FOLLIES (About Broadway), COMPANY (based on a dinner with his friend Mary Rogers), and ASSASSINS (documenting all the U.S. presidential assassins) among others. He also participated in providing music for several revues and contributed numbers that appeared in GYPSY and many other shows.

Review: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at Kauffman Center For The Arts
Daniel Lopez and Kanisha Feliciano

The singers in the Lyric Opera production are Rachel Bay Jones, Cassondra James, Kanisha Feliciano, Krista Renee Pape, James Patterson, Tamar Greene, Daniel Lopez, and Danny Kornfield. These are all super performers who have played some incredible roles.

Kanisha Feliciano was the first Latino and second Black woman to ever play Christine Daae in the Broadway production of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Rachel Bay Jones comes from the Broadway Company of Dear Evan Hansen. Cassondra James comes from the National tour of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. James Paterson has recently played Don Quixote in MAN OF LA MANCHA at Stages St. Louis. Tamar Greene played George Washington in the Broadway production of HAMILTON. Daniel Lopez is a veteran Roger Davis from RENT. Danny Kornfeld is known for his performance of Mark Kohen in the 20th Anniversary tour of RENT.

Stephen Sondheim is personally revealed not only through his music but also through clips of interviews done over the years. He was a gentleman of the first order. He would have been an honor to know. He is missed.

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, performed on May 6 and May 7, closes out the 2022-2023 Lyric Opera season.

Photo credit Don Ipock.



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