Monday, August 02, 2010

A Little Too Little Sondheim Music

Theatrical Concert Review

Sondheim: 80
Celebrating the 80th Birthday of Stephen Sondheim
Starring Patti LuPone, George Hearn, Audra McDonald and Michael Cerveris
Ravinia Festival
Saturday, July 31, 2010
(@@@@@ for the quality of what was performed; @@ for the extreme brevity)

After seeing and enjoying Shrek: The Musical on Thursday and Bon Jovi with Kid Rock on Friday, on Saturday night I went to a performance that promised a selection of songs a bit more sophisticated. Unfortunately, while the quality of what I heard was sublime, my enjoyment was quite constrained by an astonishing lack of quantity. Let's just say that as an opening act, Kid Rock played just as long as four Broadway legends and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra did at Ravinia in paying tribute to the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim.

Throughout the last decade, I have come to greatly appreciate the genius of Sondheim, who I consider the best living Broadway composer and lyricist, and probably the best ever. I have seen all of his major musicals at least once, attended three of Ravinia's five concert stagings of his works and even paid just to hear him speak at the Harris Theatre this past March.

So I had Saturday night's performance marked on my calendar for quite awhile. The four stars--Patti LuPone, George Hearn, Audra McDonald and Michael Cerveris--are all outstanding singers and actors, who I have seen & heard performing Sondheim and other shows at Ravinia and elsewhere. Although Ravinia's lawn ticket prices have risen quite a bit over the last few years, my sister and I considered the $25 well worth it (we even inquired about pavilion tickets, but weren't going to pony up $125, especially as we could see a good deal of the show from our spot on the lawn and by standing alongside the pavilion).

On the Ravinia website, it mentioned that Saturday's show was a "Gala Benefit Evening of the Women's Board" and those so inclined could have clicked around to buy benefactor tickets starting at $750 for inclusion in the Gala Dinner, but nowhere did it mention that the concert would be abbreviated. At the show, there were signs in the pavilion saying that there would be no intermission, but I still assumed there would be at least 90 minutes of music.

But not counting a rendition of the National Anthem that opened the evening--something I'd never heard at Ravinia--a total of 17 selections were performed, clocking in at 65 minutes. Appropriately, the Chicago Tribune's theater critic, Chris Jones, took Ravinia to task for the embarrassingly short show, followed-up by coverage of Ravinia's response, which I found to be piss-poor from a PR standpoint. The two pieces on Jones' blog have almost 300 combined comments from readers, including me, most of whom likewise slam Ravinia for not anyone their money's worth (whether one paid $25, $125, $750 or a whole lot more). 

The great shame of this is that what was performed sounded magnificent. From Cerveris doing "Finishing the Hat," (a great song from Sunday in the Park with George) to LuPone shining on Send in the Clowns and Everything's Coming Up Roses, and with wonderful work from McDonald and Hearn as well, I doubt many in the audience were disappointed with the quality of what they heard.

But never mind a second act--in which the selections derived from Ravinia's past Sondheim shows could have been augmented by many of his other phenomenal tunes, such as pieces from West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Into the Woods--there wasn't even an encore.

When I saw the evening's program book titled "A Little Sondheim Music" I had no idea I should take it so literally. Ravinia should be embarrassed for leaving so much good will on the table, even if it's a $50,000 table at their gala dinner. Send in the clowns, indeed.

(In case anyone's wondering, Sondheim himself was not there, even though he has attended past performances and even done pre-show talks.)

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