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Review: SIMPLY SONDHEIM at Signature Theatre

Yes, you can produce a musical during a pandmeic.

Review: SIMPLY SONDHEIM at Signature Theatre
L-R Tracy Lynn Olivera, Awa Sal Secka, and Katie Miriko Murray in
Signature Theatre's streaming production of Simply Sondheim.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

We all remember back in the day (meaning before mid-March 2020) when we would gather in a theatre, wait for the house lights to dim and hear the first notes from a live orchestra played.

Since that time, theatre companies have found some very inventive ways to present plays in the new medium of streaming pandemic theatre. Presenting musicals however are always more of a challenge because of the number of people allowed in a space at any one time due to COVID-19 restrictions. Signature Theatre has solved that problem and is now presenting Simply Sondheim the first in their five show Signature Features subscription series.

Simply Sondheim is of course a review of Broadway's theatre GOD composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and was created especially for Signature Theatre in 2015 by David Loud and Signature co-founder and former Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer.

This current version is directed and choreographed by Signature's Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner and features an ensemble of Signature regulars which include Donna Migliaccio, Bobby Smith, Tracy Lynn Olivera, and Awa Sal Secka. For added vocal power Broadway stars Emily Skinner, Norm Lewis, and Conrad Ricamora are featured in what can best be described as guest star turns. Due to Covid-19 restrictions the locally based ensemble and New York talent were filmed separately on the stage of Signature's MAX space except in only a few cases.

The fifteen-member orchestra under the baton of Jon Kalbfleisch are all masked (reeds and brass are not for obvious reasons) and socially distanced between the upstage stage floor and what usually serves as the orchestra platform up above.

The orchestrations are the work of Sondheim's musical collaborator for almost every one of his musicals Jonathan Tunick. While most of the charts already existed, Tunick created a new overture and finally put his hands on "Something Just Broke" from Assassins.

There are so many musical highlights in Simply Sondheim that it would be impossible to mention everything in this review.

I wanted to start with something that was created especially for this project when it premiered. In the musical Passion Fosca performs what I consider to be one of Sondheim's best latter-day songs entitled "I Wish I Could Forget You". What was a haunting solo in Passion is now a superb sextet with Awa Sal Secka singing lead and Donna Migliaccio, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Paul Scanlan, Bobby Smith & Nicholas McDonough singing David Loud's newly created harmony. The song will now rip your heart out even more

As I am a fan of lesser-known material in reviews, Tracy Lynn Olivera's poignant performance of "Goodbye for Now" from the movie Reds is something that I could listen to over and over again.

Review: SIMPLY SONDHEIM at Signature Theatre
Donna Migliaccio in Signature Theatre's streaming production of
Simply Sondheim.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Donna Migliaccio played Mrs. Lovett the first time Signature Theatre presented Sweeney Todd at Gunston so to see her come full circle performing The Worst Pies in London in Simply Sondheim is a real treat.

Bobby Smith's "The Right Girl" from Follies reminds us of how strong of a performer he is. When Smith glides across the stage while singing you are brought back to a time when performers like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly made it look that easy. Smith is in that class of performer.

"Getting Married Today" from Company is a bear of a song because of its fast pacing and operatic sections for one of the vocalists. Katie Mariko Murray, Christopher Mueller & Tracy Lynn Olivera simply put, knock it out of the park.

Review: SIMPLY SONDHEIM at Signature Theatre
Emily Skinner in Signature Theatre's streaming production of
Simply Sondheim.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Emily Skinner's performance of "The Ladies who Lunch" from Company is what we call a total WOW!. Skinner makes the song her own and holds you in the palm of her hand throughout.

In one of the few times where a local and NY based performer perform together, Conrad Ricamora and Christopher Mueller give us a fantastic performance of "Poems" from Pacific Overtures. If you don't remember the song or the show, you might want to consider revisiting it.

Solea Pfeiffer's knockout performance of "Another Hundred People" from Company bought back memories of her work on Signature's Gun & Powder. What a voice!!

Review: SIMPLY SONDHEIM at Signature Theatre
Norm Lewis in Signature Theatre's streaming production of
Simply Sondheim.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Last and certainly not least, Norm Lewis' performance of "Being Alive" from Company is a moment where you just have to marvel at the greatness before you.

It takes a lot of work to film and edit this kind of production so big kudos need to go out to Director of Photography Justin Chiet of Chiet Productions and Editor James Gardiner. While their work is professional and clean, the number of cuts within some of the songs I found to be a little distracting. There were points, particularly in "A Weekend in the Country" from A Little Night Music, where I just wanted the camera to stop moving and give me a long shot of the full cast in all of their vocal glory. This just might be my preference though so don't go by me.

Matthew Gardiner's staging keeps Simply Sondheim rolling along (no pun intended) at a good pace throughout the proceedings. I have been saying for years that Gardiner is a wunderkind of the DMV theatre scene and I am now going on record to say that he should be given the position of Artistic Director for everything he has done artistically to keep Signature afloat during these trying times.

Lighting designer Adam Honoré's minimal yet effective lighting includes usage of ghost lights to give us the idea of being in an abandoned theatre as the performers appear out of the darkness.

Simply Sondheim is a definite watch for lovers of musical theatre, Sondheim fanatics and for those who just miss theatre in general. "Not a Day Goes By' where we wait for live theatre to return. Until that happens Simply Sondheim can fill that void.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes with one 60 second "intermission".

Simply Sondheim is streaming through March 26, 2021. For tickets, click here.

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