Stephen Sondheim is arguably the greatest Living Theatre composer around today. Known for interesting rhythms and dense lyrics, Sondheim has written dozens of musicals (some major hits, others not) and most people would recognize at least one of his songs (even if they don't realize it's his work). SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is "the revue of a lifetime" that hits the highlights of a masterful career that's spanned almost 50 years.
The concept is simple. A diverse cast of four men and four women sing over 40 songs from the vast catalog of Sondheim's work in the course of two-and-a-half hours. What sets SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM apart from most other theatrical events is the inclusion of commentary from Stephen Sondheim himself. In between musical numbers the audience is treated to an array of vintage and current interview video clips. You learn about his upbringing, his relationships with Oscar Hammerstein, Arthur Laurents and Hal Prince and his writing process, among other interesting tidbits. (Actually, after hearing about his writing process it's a wonder he's been as productive as he is.)
Under the direction self-proclaimed Sondheim fan Victoria Bussert, the cast of this regional premiere (which is, in fact, the first production staged outside of the show's Broadway run in 2010) shines. A broad mix of age and experience, the company includes original COMPANY cast member Pamela Myers, theatre veterans Marie-France Arcilla, Justin Keyes, Destan Owens, Brian Sutherland and Emily Walton and Baldwin-Wallace students James Penca and Ciara Renée. There is delightful chemistry in whatever combination they perform, be it duets, quartets, full company numbers.
While the overall show was captivating and enjoyable, there were a handful of outstanding performances that stood out. WEST SIDE STORY's "Something's Coming" is usually a solo number, however, Keyes, Penca, Walton and Renée combined for a stunning version with soaring four-part harmonies. Emily Walton gave the audience some good laughs during her comedic turn in "Getting Married Today" from COMPANY. "The Gun Song" from ASSASSINS (a show Sondheim considers a near-perfect collaboration) is a mix of drama, comedy and suspense in the hands of Owens, Keyes, Penca and Arcilla.
A true treat for those attending is the addition of "Another Hundred People" at the top of Act II. Combined with vintage video footage of her and Sondheim working with the orchestra in a recording studio, Pamela Myers can still land the song with gusto 40 years after COMPANY debuted on Broadway.
Featuring piano, woodwinds and strings, the six-piece orchestra led by music director Matthew Webb blends well with the cast. They never overpower and, quite frankly, probably could have struck a suitable balance even if the actors weren't wearing microphones.
Given the concept of SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM one would be remiss if projection director Daniel Brodie wasn't praised. The video clips are shown framed by a giant, tilted picture frame. Aside from the stock footage of Sondheim himself, there is the addition of animations. Some play in the background while songs are being performed, some provide a comical presence to Sondheim's narrations. There is even a YouTube montage of "Send In The Clowns" containing expected and … unexpected performance clips.
When all is said and done, Great Lakes Theater should be extremely proud of its first collaboration of PlayhouseSquare as part of the annual Key Bank Broadway Series. The production is on par with the touring shows that stop in Cleveland. Just because SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is considered a regional production shouldn't stop people from going to see it. You'll leave the theatre with a deeper appreciate of the theatre process, more knowledge of the amazing Stephen Sondheim and a song or two stuck in your head.