Sunday, March 01, 2015

Isn't It Bliss: Porchlight's Take on 'Sondheim On Sondheim' is Ever the Genius' Tale to Attend -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Sondheim on Sondheim
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru March 15

Not only is Stephen Sondheim--in my estimation but also many others'--the greatest composer/lyricist in musical theater history, he is also the most eloquent and insightful artist I've ever heard discuss their creative process.

Thus, over roughly the past 15 years--I often consider my embracing of Sondheim musicals as the demarcation of my adulthood, even though I was past 30 at the time--I have not only seen numerous productions of most of his shows, but I have greatly enjoyed hearing him speak.

I had this pleasure twice at Ravinia, where Sondheim spoke in the Martin Theatre before wondrous concert productions of Passion in 2003 and Anyone Can Whistle in 2005--and likely on other occasions I didn't witness--and in ticketed downtown Chicago conversations, with director Gary Griffin in 2010 and with Tribune theater critic Chris Jones in 2011.

Sondheim's artistic articulateness is also amply illustrated in HBO's excellent 2013 Six by Sondheim documentary, which I just watched again the other day.

And I also love perusing the twin compendiums, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, in which Sondheim provides detailed notes about each of his shows and song lyrics.

So while it would seem a no-brainer that I would relish Sondheim on Sondheim, a show conceived by longtime collaborator James Lapine that features several standout songs accompanied by video of Sondheim providing musical and/or biographical anecdotes, I was pleasantly surprised by how much it amplified my understanding of its subject.

Sure, I had heard many of the same stories--about how the great Oscar Hammerstein became Sondheim's mentor during childhood, about Sondheim not wanting to write only lyrics (rather than the music as well) for both West Side Story and Gypsy but being persuaded to do so, etc., etc.--through various other forums, not to mention most of the songs within their natural habitats, yet I found Porchlight Music Theatre's Chicago premiere of Sondheim on Sondheim a complete delight.

And newly and truly insightful as well.

Sondheim on Sondheim is especially poignant in portraying how the composer/lyricist's sour relationship with his mother, including a particularly grievous comment she made late in her life, worked its way into his art, most notably through Into the Woods and songs such as "Children Will Listen."

Hence, though musical revues and tribute concert performances can often be delightful simply due to the abundance of wonderful songs--and I've seen fine showcases of Sondheim, Rogers & Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber and others--as presented here under the direction of Nick Bowling, Sondheim on Sondheim is also an illuminating piece of theater.

Though the music is obviously different, it feels more akin to Jersey Boys--a first-rate musical biography of the Four Seasons--than merely a superb selection of songs well-sung.

Which isn't to imply that the songs themselves, and the excellent performances by a mostly non-Equity Chicago cast, isn't still the primary reason to see and love Sondheim by Sondheim.

At the literal center of Porchlight's superb Stage 773-housed production of a show that got mixed reviews on Broadway when it premiered in 2010 is pianist Austin Cook, who looks suitably like a mid-career Sondheim and plays beautifully.

With Cook representing Sondheim more than ever portraying him, the basic staging conceit reflects the age-old tradition of a Broadway tunesmith entertaining guests within a home setting.

As Sondheim is niftily projected onto various sections above the stage, the 8-member cast makes terrific use of the space and often loosely acts out scenes from which songs originated.

This doesn't simply add entertainment value, but reflects that Sondheim wrote almost entirely for characters and scenarios a librettist had developed, rather than creating songs out of thin air, simply for their own sake.

Each performer within the diverse and perfectly-cast ensemble--Emily Berman, Rebecca Finnegan, Amelia Hefferon, James Earl Jones II, Matthew Keffer, Yando Lopez, Stephen Rader, Adrienne Walker--has ample opportunities to embody characters from Sondheim shows and expertly sing to Cook's accompaniment, whether alone, in pairs, among larger groups or all together.

I could easily name 20+ songs that were scintillating, including the choral "Sunday," Keffer's exquisite "Finishing the Hat," Lopez & Berman alternating then dueting on the beautiful ballads "Losing My Mind"/"Not a Day Goes By" and Finnegan & Jones delivering a super "Send in the Clowns," which Sondheim noted as his only hit single, one that hit the charts via Judy Collins two years after Frank Sinatra recorded it following inclusion in A Little Night Music.

I've now learned that James Earl Jones II is not the son of the famed actor but rather a third cousin, yet he has a similarly resonant--if not quite as deep--voice and I particularly enjoyed his renditions of various roles, including imbuing Merrily We Roll Along's Franklin Shepard with haughty humor (alongside Rader) and Passion's Giorgio with a believable pathos, although Walker undoubtedly made for a much lovelier Fosca than the character Sondheim described with numerous cackle-inducing adjectives.

My guess is that this is a show that will largely be attended by Sondheim devotees, of which there are many, although not nearly as many as there should be.

Yet while almost anywhere is a good place to start with Sondheim, or to further your appreciation--including the recent Into the Woods movie, a library DVD of Sunday in the Park with George, Drury Lane Oakbrook's excellent current staging of West Side Story or the Six by Sondheim documentary, still available on HBO On-Demand--I emphatically recommend Sondheim on Sondheim for acolytes and neophytes alike.

Congruent with my common prattling on about the therapeutic importance of cultural enlightenment, Sondheim is shown speaking about how his life, career and success were largely fueled by role models (especially Hammerstein), teachers, contemporaries and creative collaborators, making--along with other verbal insights and much else--this a show I wish everyone could and would see, including those who have never heard of and/or cared about the turning-85-this-month living legend.

And though many of the same video clips, and thus stories--including a great one about a potty-mouthed Ethel Merman--can be seen/heard in Six by Sondheim, not only do the musical performances overall make Sondheim on Sondheim an utterly mirthful Porchlight delight, Sondheim-o-philes should revel in the rarities.

The show's songlist includes the first song Sondheim ever wrote in a musical theater vein, a tune from his failed first musical, Saturday Night, songs cut from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies and Company, and "God," a quirky new song accompanied by a cute video clip put together for his pal Lapine's tribute to him.

As I lather praise on Sondheim on Sondheim, and the genius that it's about, it isn't lost on me that I likely love this show more than perhaps anyone who might read this.

I would say that if my review inspires just a single person to see the show--currently slated to end on March 15, with discounts to some performances possible on HotTix and/or Goldstar--it would be worth the few hours I've spent writing it.

But the truth is, it's worth it already.

As Mr. Sondheim notes at one point during the show, "Everybody has troubles, nobody goes through life unscathed.

"But I do believe in the joy of life."

His work, and his wisdom, are joys that I am glad to have come to know in my life.

And Porchlight's remarkable production of Sondheim on Sondheim only adds to it.

Appreciably, in every sense of the word.

"So many people in the world
Don't know what they've missed
They'd never believe
Such joy could exist"

-- Stephen Sondheim
"So Many People," Saturday Night, 1954


Despite the length of this review, I haven't really elaborated on why I so admire Sondheim's work, and having written about him & his shows numerous times, I won't delve into it trying to explain it here.

But I thought the following remark made by host David Hyde Pierce--on behalf of actors specifically, but also just fans--during Sondheim 80th Birthday Concert in 2010 (excellent and available on DVD & Blu-ray) is a pretty good summation:

"We owe him so much for giving us roles and songs and shows that have complexity, sophistication, beauty and wit."


Below is a Spotify Playlist of some of my favorite songs written by Stephen Sondheim. That only 5 of them are included in Sondheim on Sondheim says a lot of the quality of his output. 

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