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SIMPLY SONDHEIM - Signature Theater

This review was written for, and will be published by, Blickpunkt Musical, the German magazine on international musical theatre for which Mr. Dwyer is US reviewer.

For many Stephen Sondheim fans there’s never enough Sondheim. The pandemic generated even more virtually, including a wonderful 90th birthday celebration, previously reviewed in Blickpunkt. Now along comes “Simply Sondheim”, an original concert created and produced by Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia - right across the Potomac River from Washington DC - with Sondheim’s cooperation, that outdoes any on-line Sondheim yet. Wait. I’ll go further. It IS the best Sondheim revue concert I have seen anywhere anytime, which is going out there on a limb given the countless revues, cabarets, benefits, concerts, etc that have been mounted in Sondheim’s more-than-half century career. Signature is up for the task. Founded in 1989, it won the 2009 Tony Award for Regional Theater in the US: it’s a national destination for musical productions, its very first production in 1991, which put it on the map, was its much-acclaimed take on Sondheim’s masterpiece, “Sweeney Todd”.

The show being streamed on-line through March 26 via Marquee TV subscription service in the US excels for several reasons. First, it is the most originally curated selection - 30 songs - of Sondheim yet assembled, acknowledging the perennials but reintroducing songs that are seldom performed. Two, the totally new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, who has orchestrated and arranged more original Sondheim productions than anyone, not only acknowledges the Sondheim musical canon but also incorporates new elements unheard before. Three, the show is impeccably cast, with 12 performers - 8 who function more or less as the central ensemble cast, and 4 featured singers - all of whom are at the top of their game. Fourth, the direction and stage movement creates a perfectly paced and choreographed performance, incorporating the pathos and wit in Sondheim’s work, with impeccable emotional symmetry.

It’s fitting the show starts with an unexpected (and previously never done) medley of the title songs of “Merrily We Roll Along'' (one of Sondheim’s least successful shows) and “Bounce”(his last effort with a checkered production history) which both address life’s journey. Lyrics like “ Yesterday is done...See the pretty countryside...Merrily we roll along, roll along...Bursting with dreams” meld with “You take a few lumps, You have a few laughs, And all the while you bounce” Indeed, the mutual propositions, precisely identified by the show’s creators, David Loud and Signature founding director Eric Schaeffer, set the theme for the sublime and, at times, transporting, entertainment that follows.

Fraught relationships, integral to the stories Sondheim tells, are ingeniously dramatized in a triptych of songs each sung by a trio of characters. The man’s view comes through loud and clear in the title song from “Saturday Night” (“alone on Saturday night you might as well be dead”) ;the women’s in the well-known “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from “Company”. The triptych concludes with an arresting rendition of “Now/ Later / Soon” from “A Little Night Music”. Newcomer, tenor Nicholas McDonough gives “Later” an intensity I’ve never observed before. Listen carefully to the orchestrations, in “Soon”: orchestrator Tunick incorporates the “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” bird-chirping melody from “Sweeney Todd”.

The first act borrows a lot from “Company”: “Sorry/ Grateful”, “Not Getting Married Today” and “Another Hundred People”, the last interpreted with ferocious energy by Solea Pfeiffer, who has appeared in the US West Coast cast of “Hamilton”. The mood shifts introspectively with two of Sondheim’s most elegiac and simple compositions, “Every Day a Little Death”, performed with perfect clarity by Signature regulars Tracy Lynn Olivera and Katie Mariko Murray and “Loving You” from “Passion”. The show’s creators have the confidence to follow “Loving You’ with two more of Sondheim’s lesser-known ballads from “Passion”: an impassioned interpretation of “Is This What You Call Love” by Broadway leading man Norm Lewis and a brilliantly orchestrated medley of “I Wish I Could Forget You” / “Sextet” with six of the ensemble. The mood shifts to upbeat to conclude Act 1 with the rousing “Weekend in the Country '' from “ A Little Night Music”, the best first act closer in the Sondheim canon (and, arguably, one of the best first act closers in musical theatre history).

Director and choreographer Matthew Gardiner, who’s helmed dozens of musicals at Signature, shoots most of the performance (no audience, naturally) from a seventh-row center pov, moving the players, safely distanced, about a broad stage. The 15 piece orchestra, downlit, is upstage. He mixes-in mid-shots and some close-ups of individual performances with a nod to golden age of variety shows of 1960s television, but his camera's motion is informed more by cinematography of, say, a contemporary film musical like “La La Land”. Lighting and costumes are understated; the mise-en-scene recalls “And the World Goes Round”, a sparkling revue of Kander and Ebb’s songs, Off-Broadway in 1991.

With a nod to the social and political crisis facing the US, the second act begins with an heartbreaking, ensemble rendition of “Something Just Broke” from “Assassin”, which memorializes the moment on November 22, 1963 when Americans heard that President Kennedy was shot. The ensemble resumes the upbeat (recall the theme of rolling along, bouncing back) with a sprightly “Now You Know” from ”Merrily We Roll Along.” The second act borrows heavily from “Follies” - “Could I Leave You”, “The Right Girl”, a stunning duet medley of Sondheim’s torchiest torch songs “Losing My Mind” and “Not a Day Goes by” (from “Merrily”) and two, seldom-heard songs, “Who Could be Blue/ Little White House” cut from "Follies" before the original 1971 production got to Broadway and “Country House” which was added to the 1987 "Follies" London production. With assurance, the revue’s creators eschew the better-known numbers from “Into the Woods” for a revelatory pairing of two overlooked little songs - “I Guess This is Good-Bye” and “The Steps of the Palace”.

The performance winds down with a song trio that evidences Sondheim’s range. Conrad Ricamora (who played the royal heir in Lincoln Center’s “The King and I”) renders a perfectly punctuated “Finishing the Hat.” Emily Skinner, last seen on Broadway in “The Cher Show”, delivers the angriest of angry interpretations of “Ladies Who Lunch” I can think of. Norm Lewis, desentimentalizes Sondheim’s most famous yearning-for-love ballad “Being Alive”; in his booming baritone, and turns it into a universal statement of practical survival.

The concert concludes with an ensemble rendition of “Hills of Tomorrow”, the school anthem from “Merrily We Roll Along” which gets elevated by this “Simply Sondheim” into a hymn, an ode to the future. The show circles back into a reprise of the “Merrily We Roll Along” /“Bounce” medley . (Rolling forward, bouncing back -again). A instrumental version of the chirpy “Old Friends” plays over the credits.


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