Monday, October 19, 2015

Review: A Tribute to the Master - SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM

Barbara Carlton Heart, Kevin McMahon, Josh Wise, Stephanie Fredricks, J
ake Novak, and Shaina Knox. All photo by Suzanne Mapes

He has been studied, copied, emulated, and lauded but one fact is indisputable. Stephen Sondheim is American Musical Theatre royalty. And rightfully so. All of his efforts have been in pursuit of making the work better. Where other writers would bring 20 or 30 options for a word or idea to a meeting with his collaborators, Sondheim would bring 150. That’s one of the things we learn about the man in Sondheim on Sondheim playing at International City Theatre.

The show is a revue that intersperses archival photographs, video clips, and interviews with songs from musicals like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (along with stories of how difficult it was to find the right opening number), Company (and it’s early alternate endings), Gypsy, Follies, Passion, Sweeney Todd, Do I Hear a Waltz (the one he felt was a waste of time) and Sunday in the Park with George (his favorite) sung by a cast of six. 

He is the master of crafting a simple lyric or writing a sophisticated harmonic progression, and can suspend a moment in time just long enough for it to land with finesse before moving on. In Sondheim on Sondheim we hear him talk about his process and share stories – some sweet, some poignant, and a few, downright hilarious. It is an enchanting evening that will make every Sondheim lover feel like they have had a personal conversation with Sondheim himself.

Despite much speculation, Sondheim says he only wrote one autobiographical song in his career – “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along. It’s a song that represents the dreams and determination of three young creative artists trying to make it in show business – a writer, a lyricist and a composer (based on Mary Rodgers, Hal Prince, Sondheim and every other struggling artist he knew at the time). In it, he encapsulates their plight with remarkable specificity and weaves together the lyric and melody so compactly that the form itself tells the story as much as the words and music do.

And that’s what is missing from International City Theatre’s LA premiere. Theirs is a perfectly respectable musical revue nicely staged by director DJ Gray in a very general kind of way. That’s the problem. Sondheim is famous for exploring the underbelly of our emotions. Behind every “normal” looking person is a complicated set of issues and neuroses that play into the decisions a person makes. He is the king of subtext, the master of nuance, and always wrote for specific characters and specific situations.

For a song to work, it requires that the singers be able to reach deep within and, not only find what the song is really saying, but be able to communicate it to the audience with clarity. Translation: you can’t just sing the notes and make them pretty. You have to do the internal work and that takes time. Young singers who haven’t had much life experience are at a distinct disadvantage and must compensate by doing the work.

By the same token, a singer cannot take a song like “Loving You” from Passion, written with long beautiful phrases and specific punctuation, and not honor that phrasing. To breathe every few notes, presumably for effect or because breath support isn’t there, chops up the line and does the song a disservice. Likewise, a comic masterpiece like “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” that has so many changes of thought and rhythm should have the audience in stitches until the bitter undertone takes over the song. But the actor needs to be up to the task to be successful.

Intonation was also an issue on opening night for both solos and ensemble numbers. Everything sticks out when you’re working with these kinds of close harmonies and in only a few of the numbers did the cast really jell. “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story and the second half of “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George where gorgeous.

L-R: Jake Novak, Kevin McMahon, Stephanie Fredrics, and Josh Wise

On the flip side, there are songs in this production that do work, and quite beautifully. Stephanie Fredricks and Josh Wise’s “So Many People in the World” is a lovely example of simplicity that serves the song. The arrangement features Jennifer Li on cello and Roman Solazinka on violin in the accompaniment and, if you listen closely, the strings literally sing in the background. The orchestrations are by Michael Starobin and the arrangements are by David Loud and they are some of the most beautiful and unexpected you’ll hear. Musicians, you’ll find a lot to love.

Fredricks also does a rich and poignant version of “Good Thing Going” and a seductive turn with the boys in “Ah, But Underneath” that are highlights. Kevin McMahon’s emotional evolution in “Being Alive” was heartfelt and brilliantly effective, as was his moving “Finishing the Hat.” 

But even if every song had been on point, the star of this show is still Sondheim himself, as well it should be. James Lapine, Sondheim’s longtime collaborator, with whom he wrote some of his best work, conceived the revue as a gift for Sondheim’s 80th birthday. To see how charming he was as a young man, to see the sparkle in his eyes captured in the photographs and hear what he has to say about himself is more than enough reason to not miss the show.

“Art is the other way to have children,” Sondheim says late in the second act. His kind of art will continue as a legacy for musical theatre generations to come. And happily, we will continue to roll along and reap the benefits.

The Cast of Sondheim on Sondheim

L-R: Kevin McMahon, Stephanie Fredricks, Josh Wise,
Jake Novak, and Shaina Knox

October 14 - November 8, 2015

International City Theatre
Long Beach Performing Arts Center

300 East Ocean Blvd.
Long Beach, CA 90802
Tickets: (562) 436-4610 or

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