Art isn’t easy but it can certainly be glorious. Case in point: Wright State University’s excellent regional premiere of the 2010 musical revue “Sondheim on Sondheim,” a fascinating, revelatory tribute to Grammy, Oscar, Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Stephen Joshua Sondheim, who celebrated his 85th birthday last month.
Conceived by James Lapine, who shared the Pulitzer with Sondheim as librettist of “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Sondheim on Sondheim” is a marvelous, multimedia rarity in the revue mold. Unlike most revues confined by a song to song format and a thin story structure, this project is astutely constructed around Sondheim’s vivid, humorous and heartbreaking descriptions of his life and career executed within the archival framework of over 100 video segments. Lapine’s documentary-driven decision to allow Sondheim to be as open and vulnerable as possible about himself in addition to the rigors and joys of the collaborative creative process gives the audience an opportunity to connect with the seemingly reserved composer on a deeper, engaging level, particularly as he reflects on his rocky relationship with his cynical, melancholic mother and how he came to terms with his sexuality.
Propelled to prominence in the 1950s by writing lyrics to “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” yet perhaps best known for composing “Send in the Clowns,” Sondheim, a proudly neurotic only child, primarily embraced musical theater due to the encouragement of his mentor and neighbor Oscar Hammerstein II. His legacy as a Broadway composer began with a hilarious bang (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”), but he ultimately transformed musical theater with exceeding bite and maturity in the 1970s creating such sophisticated, dark, intelligent, and thought-provoking shows as “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Sweeney Todd.” Curiously, this revue doesn’t incorporate any songs from his stellar “Pacific Overtures,” delightful “Dick Tracy” or quirky “Frogs,” but ample room is given to cult favorites such as “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Assassins” and “Passion” as well as a handful of terrific cut songs specifically from “Company.” As an added bonus, it’s refreshing to know Sondheim doesn’t mind poking fun at his genius as evidenced in the original tune “God.”
Envisioning the show with an informal, cozy living room approach inside the intimate black box Herbst Theatre, director Jamie Cordes, at his finest when showcasing songs from “Assassins,” “Company” and “Merrily We Roll Along,” assembles an energetic, vocally dynamic cast skillfully interpreting over 40 character-conscious numbers. The spectacular Cassi Mikat, showcasing exquisite lyric aptitude in one of the best performances of the season, takes charge with sublime renditions of “Take Me to the World” (a gem from the little known “Evening Primrose”), “Not a Day Goes By” and “In Buddy’s Eyes.” Just as mesmerizing and vital here as Barbara Cook in the Broadway production, Mikat is such a pro that her truly breathtaking embodiments of “Passion” numbers “I Read” (one of the most challenging arias in the Sondheim canon) and “Loving You” as well as “Send in the Clowns,” the fitting climax of the revue, are enough to tell me she’s immediately ready to offer her own Sondheim showcase at New York’s 54 Below or Joe’s Pub. Katie Momenee, a beguiling mix of delicacy and fieriness, offers a lovely “Good Thing Going” and exuberant deliveries of “The Wedding Is Off” (which became “Getting Married Today”) and “Ah, But Underneath.” Soprano Abby Murray Vachon nicely accents the comedy fueling “The Wedding Is Off” and winningly inhabits the breeziness of “Do I Hear a Waltz?” Kelsey Pohl, so natural and grounded, effortlessly drives the truth permeating “Now You Know” and charms throughout the terrific “Opening Doors,” which Sondheim regards as his most autobiographical song. Strong tenor Nathan Pecchia commands attention while relishing the malevolent rage of “Epiphany” and the eerie moodiness of “The Gun Song.” The very personable Ian Benjamin gives firm, heartfelt versions of “Is This What You Call Love?” and “Being Alive.” Logan Torbet vibrantly tackles “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” The solid, expressive Keaton Eckhoff winningly joins Pohl and Torbet for “Opening Doors,” one of the show’s best sequences along with “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” and “Something Just Broke.” Ensemble members/understudies Zachary Fretag, Natalie Girard, Caitlin Geisser, and Jim Miller pleasantly support the principal cast albeit in a lesser capacity.
Additionally, music director/pianist Sean Michael Flowers leads a small yet superb band including guitarist Mark Beyer and cellist Emsie Hapner. Scenic designer Pam Knauert Lavarnway straightforwardly fills the space with chairs, rugs and a couch but adds two staircases for greater dimension. Costumer Emily Sollinger provides attractive formal wear for the ladies in Act 2. Jessica Drayton’s lighting design and James Dunlap’s sound design are equally fine.
Without a doubt “Sondheim on Sondheim” is an absolute must-see for Sondheim fans, but even if you prefer the company of other composers you will find something appealing in his journey. By and large, getting to know the greatest living composer of American musical theater is an immense treat in WSU’s impressive hands. I’m glad Sondheim is still here fully prepared to give us more to see.
“Sondheim on Sondheim” continues through April 26 in the downstairs, black box Herbst Theatre of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 65 minutes; Act Two: 65 minutes. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $5 for students. All shows have general admission seating. For tickets or more information, call (937) 775-2500 or visit www.wright.edu/tdmp.