I am a huge Sondheim fan; I love him for his “crazy” characters, his smart dissection of life, his clever lyrics and turns-of-phrases, and his eclectic musical styles. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s Sondheim on Sondheim is a dream come true. Running two hours and forty-five minutes, few aspects of Sondheim’s life are left unheard or untouched by this gorgeous musical revue conceived by his long-time collaborator James Lapine. And the Lyric Stage is one of the only theatre companies in Boston who can find the hummable tunes and the complex characters within Sondheim’s expansive scores and stories. Lead by genius Sondheim-interpreter Director Spiro Veloudos (whose Sondheim credits are too numerous to list) and supported by Music Director Jonathan Goldberg (another Sondheim professional) and Choreographer Ilyse Robbins (whose work excels expectations, especially for a Sondheim revue), this rarely-done production offers acute insights into an artists’ motivation, but, moreover, it grants a deep understanding of Sondheim’s characters and how some Boston legends and rising stars interpret and apply themselves to Sondheim’s work. This inside-look is voyeuristic and beautiful, celebrating not only Sondheim but also the Lyric and the performers that we love to see there.
The musical revue would be nothing without the intimate interviews with Stephen Sondheim. And the Lyric’s production would be nothing without the artistry and collaboration of Scenic Designer David Towlun, Lighting Designer Chris Hudacs, Projection Design Seághan McKay, and Sound Designer Andrew Duncan Will. Together, these designers make an integrated world filled with the sound and feel of Sondheim’s voice and melodies. With not a bad seat in the house, we watch Sondheim detail his life, reflect on his decisions and work, and reminisce about the collaborators and partners. Costume Designer Gail Astrid Buckley outfits the eight-member cast in casual to business dress, accenting the roles that they will sing and play in the revue, but also reflecting upon the multitude of personalities within Sondheim’s life and musicals. The scenes spill from one to the next, creating a whirlwind of time and style as we proceed through Sondheim’s work, what starts as almost a chronological examination but becomes much more sophisticated look into how Sondheim explored maturity and growth as an artist throughout his career. The sophisticated interplay between technical elements cemented this revue as one of Boston’s strongest productions, an interconnected tapestry of outstanding musical production quality that is rarely seen in practice.
The production values would be nothing without the heart of the production, brought by the eight talented and diverse cast members. Each member brings and highlights something unique about Sondheim’s work, from his vocal range to his seemingly innocent characters to his focus on outsiders to his sexiness. We are treated to the (almost) complete score of Sondheim’s work and Director Velodous wants to remind us (through his diverse cast) that Sondheim is not meant to be simply a Caucasian, middle-aged, wealthy, male heterosexual musical pleasure. Sondheim’s work is gritty and expansive and as diverse as the community that surrounds us, if only we let it. Starting with a funny cutting of “I’ll Meet You at the Donut” and exploration of the perfect opening song for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the revue opens on a comedic note, light-hearted and jovial, but always introspective and searching. The cast plays well into this tongue-in-check fun, but, like Sondheim, their true strengths lie elsewhere. It wasn’t until we get the re-orchestrated interpretation of “Something’s Coming,” performed by our four younger performers, Mala Bhattacharya, Maritza Bostic, Sam Simahk, and Patrick Varner, that we get something that feels alive and worthy of this cast’s talent. For once, this West Side Story solo feels like an anthem for our generation, a precursor (even though Sondheim only wrote the lyrics) to Sondheim’s later works such as Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George. Something is coming for this these talented performers (notable congratulations to Sam Simahk in booking The King and I in Chicago for the spring).
And now, we’re off with something to explore and dissect and ponder and enjoy. Leigh Barrett and Christopher Chew bring a couple’s bickering and loving pizzazz to Company’s “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” a middle-age anthem to marriage (though I missed “The Little Things You Do Together” instead). Aimee Doherty chews on the scenery as the eponymous Amy in Company’s “The Wedding is Off” (cut from the original and replaced by “Not Getting Married”). Maritza Bostic’s best number comes early in the show with Merrily We Roll Along’s “Now You Know;” yes, we do know, Maritza, you are a rising star, as a young Boston performer who has the voice but also brings the intelligent interpretation and acting to her songs. Sam Simahk’s controlled mania in Merrily We Roll Along’s “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” is one of the strongest interpretations of the song that I have seen; his precision and loss of that control is an actor’s dream. Christopher Chew returns to his old friend, Sweeney Todd, in Epiphany and the song has never sounded or felt better; unlike in the Lyric’s production in September 2014, I understood Chew’s Sweeney as a man who is compelled to revenge, and this beautiful loss of words and control felt suddenly alive. Davron S. Monroe has surprisingly tender moments in three consecutive songs from Passion with Leigh Barrett; while I felt like these songs dragged, my reflection was more because I do not care for Passion’s story or score, not a reflection of the commitment by Monroe or Barrett to telling this “beauty loves the beast” story in its overlooked glory. The end of Act 1 was everything that I wanted and more, creating a gorgeous and brilliant mash-up of Into the Woods’ “Ever After” (a cliché conclusion musical number for cabarets and revues everywhere) mixed with exciting A Little Night Music’s “A Weekend in the Country” (performed with such snarky humor) and the gorgeously lush Sunday in the Park With George’s “Sunday” (one of my favorite Act 1 ending numbers in all of musical theatre). While “Sunday” will never fail to make me cry at the beautiful simplicity of yearning for artistic excellence and exactitude, this mash-up created a more tender reflection on Sondheim’s most famous Act 1 conclusions, a reminder that it is not “Ever After” (ever), a weekend in the country brings pain and resolution, and an ordinary Sunday can bring triumph and un-fulfillment. Enough, you wanted a review, not my babblings on Sondheim’s brilliance (and, by proximity, this production’s genius conception).
Act 2 feels as different from Act 1 as the second act in Into the Woods or Sunday in the Park With George. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s a tonal switch. Act 2 feels more introspective, an even closer dissection of Sondheim’s mind and thinkings, from God (the only new song for this revue) to a multitude of cut and/or added songs (including Company’s “Multitudes of Amy” and “Happily Ever After” and Gypsy’s “Smile, Girls”, and Follies’s “Ah, But Underneath” and Assassin’s (best song) “Something Just Broke”). Monroe brings first-rate talent in Company’s “Being Alive” (could we see him next fall in The Lyric’s Company? I certainly hope so, given his recent performance of this challenging song). Bhattacharya brings her best work in her bright soprano and wide-eyed innocence to Do I Hear a Waltz?’s title song. She performs the song to contradict naysayers about the musical’s potential, a clever interpretation by Veloudos and her. Doherty’s finest work comes in her sexy appeal in “Ah, But Underneath” from Follies; having just seen the show, I would love to see Aimee tackle and define Phyllis and all of her complexity in a production of Follies (with Leigh Barrett joining as Sally). And, finally, Leigh Barrett gives knockout one number after another. Barrett has the maturity and skills, but, moreover, she also has the heart to bring these numbers to extraordinary climax. Her “Send in the Clowns” is the best that I have ever heard; no offense to the Boston theatre companies that cast out-of-town performers, but her performance is a reminder that we do not need to look outside of Boston for exceptional talent to perform some of Sondheim’s most-challenging and demanding roles.
There is really nowhere to put my concerns about this production as a musical revue. First, I was disappointed that Lapine omitted Pacific Overtures, an already forgotten Sondheim musical but features the complex “Someone in a Tree” (I’ll ignore that they omitted The Frogs). Next, I missed a thrilling interpretation of “Everybody Says Don’t”, a wonderful anthem for either a male or female performer, that would have fit perfectly with Sondheim’s defiance of what musical theatre and theatre could and can be. Finally, the bizarre concluding “Anyone Can Whistle” did not cap the evening for me; it was almost too esoteric, even for me as a Sondheim fan. Honestly, I don’t know how Lapine could have ended this musical revue; he used many of the stronger Sondheim conclusions elsewhere in the show (“Being Alive,” and “Children Will Listen”). Someone with a better memory or musical sophistication then me, can you tell me another notable Sondheim song to end the show? Maybe here is where you include “Everybody Say Don’t” as a defiant anthem to Sondheim’s brilliance. My concerns are with Lapine’s compilation, not with the Lyric’s production. They needed to be discussed, but not dwelled upon.
I was surprised how much Ilyse Robbins could put her personal touch and sophistication to this Sondheim revue. Her movement and staging are integral to the production’s success; the integration among Goldberg, Veloudos, and Robbins is exemplary. Acting upon the strengths of three powerhouse artists, these three bring precision and understanding to each Sondheim number, knowing when the others should take the lead and when each of their works supports the greater product. The sum of their work is much greater than each of their individual parts. Likewise, the ensemble finds strength in the diversity that they bring to the stage, but also the cohesive love and joy for performing Sondheim as a “company.” The Lyric Stage Company of Boston has rarely produced finer work, reinforcing their continued excellence in adapting, staging, and celebrating Sondheim in their intimate space. Someone call Sondheim and Lapine and get them to Boston; send them a demo reel of Leigh Barrett’s “Send in the Clowns” or one of the many other stand-out numbers performed by each of the cast members. Boston deserves the recognition of performing this rarely-done Sondheim celebration.