Thursday, June 3, 2010

Roundabout Theatre Company's Sondheim on Sondheim

Sondheim on Sondheim is a compilation of Stephen Sondheim’s work, but this production explores a completely different take on the idea of a musical revue. A block of television screens allows Sondheim himself to come into the Studio 54 theatre as he discusses his history as a musician and the inspirations behind his work. The large block of screens separates into smaller clumps to show several images at the same time. The screens that are not in use also fold into a rotating staircase to become part of the set, as if the actors are physically walking among Sondheim’s ideas and thoughts.

The most praised singers of Sondheim’s work are often referred to as ‘interpreters’ and this cast headlined by Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, and Tom Wopat certainly includes some phenomenal interpreters. Norm Lewis, Leslie Kritzer, Erin Mackey, Euan Morton, and Matthew Scott complete the cast. This company (no pun intended) of eight is perfectly divided into a younger and a, let’s say more experienced, half. This works perfectly, especially in the song Waiting For the Girls Upstairs from Follies in which two older couples sing an octet, reflecting on their younger selves.

With such a luminous cast, we expect powerhouse performances from the above-the-title Cook, Williams, and Wopat, but some of the most remarkable performances come from the lesser known players. Norm Lewis delivers Being Alive more passionately and with more life than any actor who has played Bobby in Company on the New York stage. He is not just another magnificent voice—he carries a tremendous emotional weight, driving the piece forward as a performance, not just a song. Another pleasant surprise is Erin Mackey’s Do I Hear A Waltz from the musical of the same name. This singular soprano number in the show soars above the heavy ballads and comedic tunes, truly showing off her impeccable range. Her performance is nothing to scoff at either as she flawlessly delivers this delightful song from an otherwise flop of a musical. If Mackey is smart, she will follow Barbara Cook’s every move and learn from her, one of the musical theatre’s most stellar sopranos, and she too could have a bright future in the business.

Vanessa Williams is fabulous as always, particularly in the cast rendition of Children Will Listen from Into The Woods where she is featured in a duet with Tom Wopat. This song may actually be even more poignant in this production than in its original source material due to the context. It comes after a very emotional discussion by Sondheim of all the times his mother told him he was a mistake and how that affected his life. This eleven o’clock number paves the way for Cook to sing the emotional climax of the show.

Barbara Cook, a Tony winner and acclaimed cabaret singer, is certainly the highlight of this production, clearly for her vocal and performance qualities, but also for her sheer star power. Her wealth of experience, both in the theatre and in her life, add a great deal of weight to some of the show’s heavier numbers. Her rendition of In Buddy’s Eyes from Follies tells the story of a woman who, although she is aging, will always feel young in her husband’s eyes. Cook’s Send In The Clowns is simply the best I’ve ever heard and could draw a tear even from the most stoic of audience members. Coming after a discussion by Sondheim of the importance of his teacher Oscar Hammerstein II, this iconic song is truly a tribute to anyone who has ever been a mentor or touched a young life.

This production of Sondheim on Sondheim is perhaps most poignant in its exploration of generations from legends, to current stars, to newcomers. The one downside to this otherwise impeccable production is the absence of perhaps the most revered Sondheim interpreter—Bernadette Peters. But who knows, with Peters’ previous work with Tom Wopat and his unique take on the title character from Sweeney Todd in this production, maybe the pair will headline the next Broadway revival of the tale of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

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