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Review: `Sondheim on Sondheim' at the Hanna Theatre

May 25, 2012 - Andy Gray
Among theater folks, no one is more revered than Stephen Sondheim.

In “Sondheim on Sondheim,” the composer himself pokes fun at that attitude with a song called, appropriately enough, “God.”

And for those folks, the musical revue being staged by Great Lakes Theater Festival, in partnership with PlayhouseSquare’s Key Bank Broadway Series, will feel like a sacrament.

The production conceived by James Lapine deftly blends Sondheim’s songs performed by an eight-member cast with illuminating interviews with Sondheim. The result is a cross between a standard revue and a PBS “American Experience” documentary or a VH-1 “Behind the Music” with an emphasis on the craft rather than the tawdry downfall.

While there is plenty of familiar music, the show often eschews more popular songs from his canon in favor of those that illuminate his creative process. It also includes some deleted songs, oftentimes perfectly fine songs, that were replaced to better serve the story.

One of Sondheim’s many talents is that his songs are so intrinsically a part of the whole of the musical for which they are written. That’s one of the reasons pop crossover hits like “Send in the Clowns” are so rare for him. His songs are written to exist in a specific context and can’t be plucked from the show as easily as the ballads and anthems in other musicals.

It’s also one of the challenges in building a revue with his music. Lapine, in his structure, and the Great Lakes cast and director Victoria Bussert largely succeed in letting those songs stand on their own and create something distinctive and new in the way they are assembled and performed.

That said, some revues work as a great introduction to the subject; “Sondheim on Sondheim” primarily is for those who already are disciples. Snippets of “Sweeney Todd,” “Company,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Assassins” made me long to see full productions of those musicals again. And now I really want to see “Merrily We Roll Along’’ after hearing James Penca’s unraveling performance of “Franklin Shepard INC.’’ and Penca, Justin Keyes and Ciara Renee perform “Opening Doors’’ from that 1981 musical.

The way melody, rhythm and text are so intertwined in Sondheim, his songs are challenging for even the most accomplished stage veterans, but there isn’t a weak link in the ensemble, which also features Marie-France Arcilla, Destan Owens, Brian Sutherland, Emily Walton and Pamela Myers, who was part of the original Broadway cast of “Company.”

Arcilla and Renee do a beautiful duet that blends “Losing My Mind” from “Follies” with “Not a Day Goes By” from “Merrily We Roll Along,” and Arcilla vamps it up on another “Follies” track, “Ah, But Underneath.” Sutherland gives a dramatic reading of “Epiphany” from “Sweeney Todd,” and Owens shines on “Being Alive.” Walton handles the torrent of words in “Not Getting Married Today” with vocal skill and humor.

Myers belts out the “Gypsy” showstopper “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and her performance of “Another Hundred People” is preceded by a video clip of her in the studio recording the original Broadway cast album for “Company’’ (and getting corrected by Sondheim).

“Sondheim on Sondheim” runs through July 8 at the Hanna Theatre, 2014 14th St., Cleveland. Tickets range from $10 to $60 and can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or at www.playhousesquare.org.

 
 

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