Sondheim on Sondheim -- Theater Review

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A person can't turn a corner in New York these days without stumbling onto yet another 80th birthday celebration for Stephen Sondheim.

The yearlong canonization of Broadway's most eminent living composer -- which has included endless tribute concerts and revivals of such works as "A Little Night Music" and "Anyone Can Whistle" -- continues with "Sondheim on Sondheim," an intriguing but misconceived hodgepodge of musical revue and video documentary. This is the sort of Broadway show that seems designed to include pledge breaks.

Conceived and directed by longtime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine ("Sunday in the Park With George," "Into the Woods," "Passion"), the production features an eight-person cast --including such well-known performers as Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat -- showcased to less than positive effect. Their renditions of dozens of Sondheim compositions, well-known and obscure, are interwoven with video footage in which the composer discusses the artistic genesis of many of the songs being performed.

The result is a an awkward hodgepodge that is unlikely to attract significant audiences outside of the Roundabout's subscription base, though it will prove of undeniable interest to Sondheim fanatics, and they are legion.

The best parts of the show, ironically, are the interview segments, in which the erudite and witty composer provides an entertaining running commentary ranging from breezy showbiz anecdotes -- the one about Ethel Merman's run-in with Loretta Young is priceless -- to explications of his creative process to self-revealing autobiography. Anyone interested in the famously private songwriter will relish the opportunity to see footage of him puttering around his home, not to mention the close-ups of the bric-a-brac littering his office.

Unfortunately, these informative segments are too often interrupted by the live performers on hand, who provide wildly uneven renditions of songs that usually fare much better. For instance, "Comedy Tonight," performed by the ensemble, is seriously unfunny, and "Something's Coming" has the blandness of Muzak.

Wopat doesn't begin to plumb the interpretive depths necessary for such powerful numbers as "Epiphany" from "Sweeney Todd" or "Finishing the Hat" from "Sunday." The 82-year-old Cook looks quite awkward while singing romantic duets with her much younger co-stars and even worse when forced to participate in strained comedy bits. Her voice seems weak at times, no doubt because of the rigors of an eight-performance workweek. She does acquit herself beautifully when she's in her natural element, delivering gorgeously sung solo renditions of such songs as "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Send in the Clowns."

Williams generally is saddled with the more obscure material (some of it, like a number cut from "Gypsy," for a reason), though she does knock it out of the park with "Losing My Mind" and is devastatingly sexy when stripping down to flimsy lingerie for "Ah, But Underneath" (written for the London production of "Follies.")

The starring trio is augmented by five supporting performers, ranging from Broadway pros Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis and Euan Morton to relative unknowns Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott. They each have their moments, most notably Lewis with a powerful "Being Alive," but generally don't make a strong enough impression.

Too rarely do the interview segments serve to enrich the onstage performances. When it does happen -- as when Sondheim discusses his deeply painful relationship with his unloving mother as a prelude to "Children Will Listen" or when he describes the evolution of the song "Being Alive" before we hear its early and finished versions -- it only makes one all too aware of how much aesthetically powerful the show might have been.

The video projections are expertly handled, even if there is a tendency toward too many Monty Python-style visual effects, and Beowulf Boritt's modular set, which keeps breaking up into different pieces, is arresting. (Not so for Susan Hilferty's costumes, which often look like she picked them up at the Gap on the way to the theater).

Although the true fans will relish the opportunity to hear Sondheim expound at length, not to mention the plethora of rarely performed obscurities in the program, most audiences will find "Sondheim" more tutorial than entertainment.

Venue: Studio 54, New York (Through June 13)
Production: Roundabout Theatre Company
Cast: Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey, Matthew Scott
Music-lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Conceived by/director: James Lapine
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
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