Monday, March 22, 2010

Today Stephen Sondheim Is 80

Today is the 80th birthday of Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

To celebrate, I am reprinting (below) a review of three of his shows that I wrote in 2001. In addition, I would like to point readers to some of the posts I made to mark Sondheim's 75th birthday in 2005: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, and Part Seven.

This tripartite review appeared in The Metro Herald (Alexandria, Va.) on July 6, 2001.  So far as I know, it has not been previously available in an easily retrievable format on line:

Richard E. Sincere, Jr.
Special to The Metro Herald

The theatre world is abuzz with the announcement that, next year, the Kennedy Center will be mounting a festival of six musicals by Stephen Sondheim, under the overall direction of Eric Schaeffer. Schaeffer, artistic director of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, has already garnered a worldwide reputation as an interpreter of Sondheim’s work and recently made his West End directorial debut with the new musical version of The Witches of Eastwick [see The Metro Herald, March 2, 2001].

While we await the Kennedy Center’s celebration of America’s greatest living composer-lyricist, Signature is whetting our appetite with a revue of Sondheim’s work, Putting it Together.

Originally conceived by actress/director Julia MacKenzie in England, Putting it Together had its first New York production about six years ago, starring Julie Andrews. It was later revived in Los Angeles and New York under Schaeffer’s direction, with Carol Burnett in the “lead,” with Kathy Lee Gifford substituting for her at some performances. (“Lead” is, well, misleading, since PIT is an ensemble production, with the five characters even lacking names.)

Signature is always at its best when presenting musicals, and even better than that when presenting Sondheim [see our reviews of A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and A Stephen Sondheim Evening, for comparison]. So Signature patrons were suitably pleased to see PIT chosen to close the theatre’s current season.

Putting It Together is a collection of Sondheim songs, performed by five excellent singer/actors: Sheri L. Edelen, Jason Gilbert, Ty Hreben, Bob McDonald, and Jane Pesci-Townsend. There is no plot, as such, or story, but there is a dramatic arc. Songs that previously seemed wedded to their original contexts get refreshed here, gaining new layers of meaning and putting to bed the suggestion that Sondheim can’t write “hits.” While not all of the Master’s songs can stand on their own, many of them can, and those represented here prove it.

PIT includes not just songs from Broadway musicals (and off-Broadway, counting Assassins, and off- off-Broadway, counting The Frogs), but also from Sondheim’s Oscar®-winning score for the movie Dick Tracy. The wide variety gives each member of the cast a chance to shine—whether it’s Edelen’s “Sooner or Later” or Pesci-Townsend’s “Could I Leave You” or Gilbert’s amusing “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience” or—well, I could go on and on.

Director Eric Schaeffer has also designed the set for this production, a simple thrust stage that allows for maximum flexibility. The lighting design by Michael Phillipi enhances the entire unified effect, which extends even to the design for the show’s poster and program.
. . .

A five-night, free engagement of a concert version of Company at the Lubber Run amphitheatre in central Arlington almost became a four-night run when a thunderstorm and cloudburst suddenly crashed the party just as the curtain was about to rise. But Sondheim and Signature fans being what they are, the audience withstood the rain, soaked to the skin, and most held out for a one-hour rain delay. Thanks to the diligence and dedication of the crew—including several high-school students who volunteer with Signature Theatre—the show went on, and it was well worth the wait. One instrument, an electronic keyboard, was lost to the weather, but the rest of the orchestra was able to play. (Luckily there were no strings in the orchestra; it would be hard to expect them to withstand the rain and humidity.) And play they did!

Because this is a concert version of Company, it might be referred to as “Company-lite.” The focus is, as one might expect, on the songs. A few instances of dialogue are retained, just to keep the show flowing, but this is a considerably truncated version of the path-setting musical play that hit the scene in 1970 with an impact that has not yet dissipated.

There were “concept musicals” before Company, but when Stephen Sondheim added music and lyrics to George Furth’s series of playlets about married couples in New York, adding—as the mortar in this mixture—a single man who is friend to them all, they created a revolution in musical theatre. Without Company, it is unlikely that we would ever have seen A Chorus Line, Falsettoland, or Cats. (Well, we could have lived quite nicely without Cats.) This is not to say that Company had no antecedents. Cabaret, Hair, and even Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro contributed to the line of development that Company continued. But few realized where that line was going until Company’s debut.

Company’s own development did not end there. The score used in Signature’s Lubber Run concert is the one revised by the composer and used in 1995 in productions at the Roundabout Theatre in New York and the Donmar Warehouse in London. It differs slightly from what you would hear on the original cast album (with Dean Jones in the lead) or the original London cast (with Larry Kert as Robert, and the rest of the New York cast; Kert took over from Jones six weeks into the Broadway run). Both the Roundabout and Donmar cast recordings are available on CD.

Stepping up to the plate again— what a busy man!—Enc Schaeffer cast a talented set of singers for this concert. It is difficult to pick out the best moments, but surely Eleasha Gamble (as Marta) presented one of the freshest, almost optimistic renderings of “Another Hundred People” ever heard—in stunning contrast to the character’s cynicism as seen in the book. (Marta’s unforgettable scene—”I want to get all dressed up in black.. . and go sit in some bar at the end of the counter, and drink and cry.”—is missing from this version.) And Judy Simmons’ delivery of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” perhaps the best- known song from Company, resulted in the most sustained applause of the evening. And special credit must go to Amy McWilliams, as Amy. Humans being what they are (flawed), it is simply not possible for one of them to sing Amy’s part of “Getting Married Today” without at least one miscue or breathing error. McWilliams came as close to perfection as anyone I have ever heard or seen do this song, with only one noticeable flaw.

If there is any weak link in this chain of performers, it is, unfortunately, Scott Leonard Fortune as Robert. Although he has a rich, resonant baritone voice, Fortune simply failed to convince. Perhaps it is because the role was originally written for a tenor, but even with the songs transposed to his range, Fortune seemed to be out of his element. Or perhaps the rain had an unfortunate effect on him that night.

The rest of the cast included actors familiar to Washington-area theatre-goers: Suzanne Briar, Will Gartshore, Mary Payne, R. Scott Thompson, Jean Cantrell, Tom Sellwood, Tim Tourbin, Steven Cupo, Deanna Harris, and Tracy Lynn Olivera. Paul Raiman conducted the orchestra, while Signature stalwart Karma Camp did the musical staging.

Signature deserves a huge round of applause for giving to its community—Arlington County, which incubated Signature during its early years—this series of free concerts. Word is that this will become an annual event. Let’s hope so.

Unlike its Charlottesville neighbor, Live Arts, which often engages in the experimental, the avant garde, and the challenging, Heritage Repertory Theatre, a summer stock company that performs on the grounds of the University of Virginia, focuses on the tried and true. Its series of plays each summer consists mostly of critical or popular successes, Tony® and Pulitzer award-winning plays, or plays drawn from familiar American literature. This is not a fault, of course; it is just a demonstration of the depth and breadth of theatrical productions in this country, even in a small city like Charlottesville.

To launch its 28th season, HRT’s producing artistic director Robert Chapel chose Gypsy, an American “musical fable” by three-fourths of the team that gave us West Side Story: Arthur Laurents (book), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Jerome Robbins (director/choreographer). Jule Styne wrote the music, and there is little doubt that this is the best score of Styne’s 50- plus years in show business.

This production, directed by Chapel and choreographed by Kiira Schmidt, has a huge cast. (I actually lost count.) It is presented in a straightforward, traditional fashion, in contrast to Signature Theatre’s production earlier this year, which was directed by Baayork Lee.

To point out just one divergence:  at Signature, Lee chose to use the overture (one of the best-known in the American musical theatre) as an opportunity to introduce the setting and the characters, in a Runyonland-like pantomime on the thrust stage, with a setting that remained basically the same throughout the show. At HRT, the orchestra performs the overture in front of a brightly-lit act curtain, decorated with the original “Gypsy” logo (as seen on the original cast recording, for instance). At the end of the overture, the curtain rises, and we are on stage at an audition for Uncle Jocko’s children’s amateur vaudeville show. And we go on from there.

Where Lee emphasized some of the darker aspects of Gypsy—and there are many—Chapel hones in on the comic and the musical. Renee Dobson plays a sprightly Madame Rose, whereas Donna Migliaccio at Signature was more driven, more obsessive, more inward-looking. After “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” Migliaccio’s castmates were cowed and frightened; Dobson’s were simply resigned to their fate. In “Rose’s Turn,” Dobson seems to be having fun, wishing and wondering; Migliaccio had a nervous breakdown.

Still, HRT’s Gypsy is an entertaining evening. Some of the young talents—from the University of Virginia, Elon College, and local elementary, middle, and high schools—are obviously going places. The young girls who play the Baby June and Baby Louise (Allyson Graves and Maggie Horan) have tremendous stage presence, considering their ages. Nathan Moore does a star turn as Tulsa in “All I Need Is the Girl,” and Laurie Saylor convincingly transforms herself from doormat Louise to burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee in just a few, intense minutes.

Gypsy is a true classic of the American musical theatre. It is hard to pass up any opportunity to see it. If you get a chance to see this production in Charlottesville, please do so.

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