By Scott Metzger
With a title like Sondheim on Sondheim, there is the risk Porchlight’s Chicago Premiere of the show will be filled with pompous self-adulation of the man Mandy Patinkin calls “The Shakespeare of Musical Theatre.”
Indeed, the Porchlight deification of Stephen Sondheim begins as patrons walk past a shrine bearing a large smiling photo of the man surrounded by crumbled balls of yellow paper. In fact, the entire walk into the theatre feels like entering an exhibit dedicated to the composer. Jeffery D. Kmiec’s set appears to be right at home in the Smithsonian as a peek into the brilliant composer’s world, and it isn’t long before the audience feels as if it truly walked into a museum piece.
Fortunately, this idea of outside admiration is shattered as the lights dim, and the production begins.
The moment Musical Director Austin Cook takes his place at the piano, and the talented ensemble of Emily Berman, Rebecca Finnegan, Amelia Hefferon, James Earl Jones II, Matthew Keffer, Yando Lopez, Stephen Rader and Adrienne Walker enter, the audience ceases to observe, instead becoming part of the exhibit.
Director Nick Bowling’s use of the audience as entrance space in the opening number fully immerses the theater-goer in this world. When the ensemble encircles Cook in the opening medley, all present become part of a collective Sondheim conscience.
Sondheim on Sondheim is described by its Broadway director James Lapine as “a kind of impressionistic view of him that’s put together with pieces of archival footage and interview footage. It’s a collage of his life, in which who he is and how he got there comes in to focus.” It includes nearly 50 songs from 19 shows produced over a 62-year period. A complete synopsis and history of this revue may be read here.
If there is concern the evening begins to border on worship, the opening number to Act Two settles any doubt in this regard. As the only truly new number in the production, “God” provides a welcome, self-deprecating commentary on the piece and Sondheim’s life. In one of the few moments of direct interaction with the taped interviews of Sondheim, the ensemble goes from worshiping the man to suggesting we simply celebrate his music. Sondheim himself even facetiously suggests that his nail clippings be donated to the Smithsonian–providing the opportunity for the audience to really sit back and enjoy Sondheim’s work.
The celebration of Stephen Joshua Sondheim’s canon is not a new concept. Side by Side by Sondheim, Putting it Together and numerous albums dedicated to his music have helped to make his songs iconic. With talents such as Ethel Merman, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin and Patti Lupone (the list is truly endless) paving the way, it would be easy to simply imitate these great performances. The difference here is the amazing ability of the ensemble to completely switch gears and fully integrate themselves into each number, making it truly their own.
At times, a few of the numbers feel like an obligatory inclusion to appease the die hard fans. While brilliantly sung by Jones, Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany” is a bit out of place musically in the piece. However, Sondheim narrates the back and forth battle going on in Sweeney’s head both musically and mentally showcasing the need for actors to immerse themselves fully into a Sondheim number.
Other notably brilliant examples of the ensemble’s ability to command each number as an entity separate from their respective shows are: Finnegan and Jones’ “Send in the Clowns”, Keffer’s “Finishing the Hat,” Lopez and Berman’s mash-up of “Losing my Mind/Not a Day Goes By,” Hefferon’s leading of “Something Just Broke,” Rader’s “Being Alive” and Walker’s “Loving You.”The ability of each performer to immerse himself or herself into each number is also a testament to the brilliant stage direction of Bowling and vocal direction of Cook. Additionally, Cook really shines here as a true ninth member of the performing ensemble. Looking like a younger version of the famed composer, Cook’s sheer ability to sit center stage and be the sole instrumental companion to the production would be enough. The opening overture at the top of Act Two is worth the price of admission alone. However, Cook immerses himself in the music and the production, leading, interacting, and enhancing the entire performance ensemble.
The 10th and final member of this ensemble is Sondheim himself in the form of pre-taped video interviews. At first, the various screens and projections are jarring: the banister and paneled walls can, at times, be a viewing distraction. However, one quickly gets the feeling that Sondheim is looking in on the production from the outside, analyzing his own world and patrons’ involvement in it.
Enhancing the concept that the video becomes a part of the ensemble is integration between each number under the video direction of Mike Tutaj and lighting design of Nick Belley. Seamlessly switching between recorded video footage and lighting effects, Belley and Tutuaj manage to create a living performance that truly rounds out the ensemble production.
For those simply wanting to see concert style cabaret production of Sondheim’s work, this is not the production. The team at Porchlight far surpasses these mundane expectations and succeeds in making the audience truly experience the genius that is Sondheim on Sondheim.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “Sondheim on Sondheim” at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., runs February 6 – March 15, with performances on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. In addition, there are performances Wednesday, March 11, at 7:30 pm and Thursday, March 12, at 1 p.m. Tickets are priced $35 – $50. Subscriptions or single tickets are available at www.porchlightmusictheatre.org or by calling (773) 777-9884.