|Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams in Sondheim on Sondheim |
Photo: Joan Marcus
Sondheim on Sondheim, conceived and directed by James Lapine is a well-done musical theatre museum exhibit that goes on too long. It looks lovely, it sounds lovely and is mostly void of any kind of emotional wallop or comedic pizazz.
That said, there are some lovely moments in Sondheim on Sondheim and those are mostly attributable to Broadway grand-dame Barbara Cook and Norm Lewis. Ms. Cook's simplicity and honesty with a song are what have made her a Broadway star for the past fifty plus years. I'm pleased to say that at 82 Ms. Cook still has a lovely voice. Two of the evening's most perfect moments come when Mr. Lewis sings "Being Alive" from Company and Ms. Cook sings "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music. Also starring in the production are Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat. Ms. William's performance is void of any kind of warmth or emotion and her doe-eyed look never seems to wane. She always looks mildly surprised. Mr. Wopat does a fine job with his numbers but is teamed up with Ms. Cook for a corny version of "You Could Drive a Person Crazy."
Individually the cast is terrific as well. Unfortunately, the way they are directed, the group numbers have all the charisma of a 1970s variety special. They are frequently stiff though they do have a nice vocal quality to them.
On stage and suspended overhead are large television screens that fly in and out and left and right coming together in building block formations. These screens are used to present video interviews with the subject of the evening, Stephen Sondheim. These same screens are used to beautiful effect by video and projection designer Peter Flaherty who just as easily could have been credited as set designer alongside Beowulf Boritt for his often times gorgeous visual contribution.
Euan Morton, Leslie Kritzer, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott in Sondheim on Sondheim
Photo: Joan Marcus
Mr. Lapine has directed this piece in such a way that you don't get to enjoy a full song before a screen with a talking Mr. Sondheim descends from above. Applause is frequently cut short by Mr. Sondheim's presence flying in. That has a dampening effect on the spirit of an audience. This also happens during one of the shows best moments at the end of act one. Instead of letting the number ("Sunday") finish the full emotional arch, we are jarred by the reappearance of Mr. Sondheim telling us he is going to get a drink and we should do the same.
While this is amusing, perhaps they could have allowed the actors, musicians, lighting and projection designers to put the period at the end of the song without such an abrupt intrusion into what was an otherwise stunning moment both vocally and physically.
Oddly what humor this piece does have seems to be heavily loaded in the second act with the first act void of any such characteristic. Most of the comedy is provided by Mr. Sondheim's candid narration. Through this we learn some interesting things. Mr. Sondheim's admits to wasting a year and a half on a musical he felt should never have been written, "Do I Hear a Waltz?" We learn of his mother's rejection of him and her hostility toward him. In a truly touching moment Sondheim admits he didn't find love for the first time until the age of sixty. He comes off as a man who has loved his professional life and has a great sense of humor. He's utterly charming.
Unfortunately, in the end too much was stuffed into this piece. I counted 41 songs representing 19 Sondheim musicals, granted they weren't all sung in their entirety but two hours and forty-five minutes is just too long for a review. But one thing stands out above all else, that is that Stephen Sondheim is a prolific genius, the likes of whom we may never see again.
View full production credits at the Internet Broadway Database.