Saturday, August 29, 2015

Review: Sondheim Two Ways – Examining Assassins and UnScripted

Ask any musical theatre aficionado who the greatest living musical theatre composer of our time is and many will answer without hesitation, Stephen Sondheim. The complexity of his music and depth of emotion in his lyrics force an actor to dig radically deeper into a character’s psyche to find the meat of what’s inside. The Witch in Into the Woods has reasons for her actions far beyond revenge and Bobby from Company is much more than a man unable to commit to a relationship. Sondheim exposes human nature in all its glory and weakness. Nothing is accidental and when the connection of words and music to character is complete, we witness the resulting effortlessness with wonder.

Two productions currently playing in Los Angeles offer a look at Sondheim’s work, each from a different perspective. The first, Sondheim UnScripted by Impro Theatre at The Falcon, takes his most well-known stylistic elements and uses them to create an original, fully-improvised musical at each performance. Improv is a difficult enough undertaking in its most basic form but doing it in the style of a master like Sondheim, including making up songs on the spot that sound like Sondheim wrote them, is best reserved for only the most skillful of participants. Impro Theatre’s impressive cast makes short work of the task rendering a delightful two-act musical full of Sondheim-isms in under two hours.

Using the suggestions of a family heirloom and a sequence of four notes volunteered by the audience, eight actors, a pianist, and a lighting improviser weave a Sondheim-esque tale of love, loss, and lessons learned reminiscent of the sights and sounds of Into the Woods, Company, Sweeney Todd, Side By Side By Sondheim, and more.

It’s all here: the challenging vocal lines, romantic swells, dissonant harmonies, and overlapping counterpoint accompanying a journey that teaches its characters about the world. Funny, heartwarming, and full of surprises, it’s all-Sondheim, all the time, and only you get to see it this time before it’s gone forever.

As with The Troubies, Falcon Theatre’s normal summer resident laugh company, a great deal of the fun is in the moments that go awry – Lisa Fredrickson trying to sit up on a ledge and not quite getting there but not pretending it didn’t happen, Kelly Holden Bashar responding with a line of dialogue full of accidental sexual innuendo and then watching her realize it after the audience gets it first, and those meta moments when the lyrics turn in on themselves to capture not only what is happening in the story but the plight of the actors as well. 

These crafty adventurers will chew on an idea as long as they can to see where it goes, and while not every thread leads to the promised land, the skill of this merry band is never in question.

The work is a completely collaborative effort so it’s hard to single out any one individual however, at this performance, showstopping turns by Michele Spears in a song and dance sequence turned production number and Cory Rouse’s lighthearted rapid patter songs went above and beyond in the category of “thinking on one’s feet.” Brian Michael Jones and Brian Lohman also created a completely unexpected and wholly satisfying story arc for their buddy characters that could never have been planned. Hilarious and intellectual…we never saw it coming. Come to think of it, they probably didnt either.

But the star player in the company this time around is musical director Peter Smith on piano. His background in jazz is a definite asset in crafting this kind of improvised madness. It requires a unique ability to be both ahead of the actors and present to their immediate musical needs to continually propel the action forward. Smith does all that and more.

Over at the 99-seat Pico Playhouse, Red Blanket Productions is mounting a revival of Sondheim’s darkly comic musical Assassins, a thought-provoking examination of historical figures whose only claim to fame was killing, or attempting to kill, a U.S. President. First produced off-Broadway in 1990, the show experienced a number of complications before its circuitous path finally led to Broadway in 2004, where it won five Tony Awards.

For that production the roles of the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald were played by the same actor for the first time – Neil Patrick Harris – a choice that added a decidedly unsettling quality to the production. After bonding with a wholesome fresh-faced narrator for three quarters of the show, the audience suddenly watches him morph into the killer who takes down President John F. Kennedy in the eleventh hour. The decision to combine the roles was so powerful that, though not required, it is often duplicated in productions, even today.

That isn’t the case with Dan Fishbachs remount at Pico Playhouse. Sean Benedict plays the tormented Oswald and Nick Tubbs, the enthusiastically happy Balladeer. Goaded by John Wilkes Booth (Travis Rhett Wilson) and the rest of the assassins, Oswald’s bullet finds its target and the world changes forever. The production’s final tableau always hits an audience in the gut regardless of how successful the scenes leading up to it have been.

For the show to work, a director needs to achieve a balance between the presentational aspects of the writing (which is responsible for much of the show’s comedy) and the intricately nuanced inner life of the characters. Each one honestly believes the words he or she says and that truth must come through, especially if their performances are pushed to the broad end of the spectrum. Broad can be funny but it must be truthful first, otherwise the actors end up acting twice as hard to make sure their bit is funny. When that happens their words ring a notch emptier and the audience doesn’t feel the punch of how pathetically horrifying their actions really are. Or, they become a one-note character – angry, sloppy, or crazy are the three  choices that seem to be most popular.

More effective are characters like Adam Hunter Howard’s Leon Czolgosz and Selah Victor’s Emma Goldman who operate from an inescapable awareness of their world and their place in it. Howards bottle speech is chilling and the tender exchange between the two at their chance meeting resonates deeply. Claire Adams plays Squeaky Fromme and while she is one of the characters called on for broader comedy, it works because she is grounded to begin with.

Normally staged in a carnival-like setting, Alex Kolmanovsky’s captivating design jettisons the dark affair to a kind of surreal purgatory. Here the killers are found out of time in a midway where presidents faces pop up as targets in a shooting range and ensemble members peer through what looks like the torn pages of a book from beyond the walls. Effective too is Will Adashek’s use of light and shadow to create a 3-D texture to the visuals. 

Taken at face value, the production is an eerie adventure into a surreal musical world and will certainly leave you humming Sondheim’s lively ditties on your way out to the car. But for those looking for more, a deeper dive is needed.

Sondheim UnScripted photos by Jill Mamey: Brian Lohmann and Daniel Blinkoff 
Kari Coleman, Daniel Blinkoff, Jen Reiter, Brian Lohmann, Kelly Holden Bashar, and Cory Rouse
Assassins photos by Will Adashek: The cast of Assassins
Travis Rhett Wilson and Adam Hunter Howard


August 19 - September 27, 2015
Falcon Theatre
4252 Riverside Drive
Burbank, CA 91505


August 21 - September 27, 2015
Pico Playhouse

10508 West Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles 90064.

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