Conceived and originally directed
on Broadway by James Lapine
Inspired by a concept by David Kernan
Directed by Nick Bowling
Music Direction by Austin Cook
Choreography by Emily Ariel Rodgers
Produced by Porchlight Music Theatre
At Stage 773, Chicago
Wonderful documentary of Stephen Sondheim with his words and his song book marvelously sung
Nearing 85 years of age, Stephen Sondheim is in the process of writing yet another musical. Sondheim on Sondheim is a new documentary/revue featuring a cast of eight fabulous performers with the deft musical direction and fantastic piano work by the immensely talented Austin Cook. This new to Chicago docu/revue is told and narrated by Sondheim in his words from many videos Sondheim covering composer/lyricist’s life story. The blend of Sondheim’s stories and his music , Austin Cook’s playing, and the voices from a stellar cast makes for a special theatrical experience.
The frankly honest Sondheim story documents the genius as he takes us back to the his origins as a Broadway musical composer and lyricist. Sondheim tells the origin and concept of each of his works; who he collaborated with, and then we hear a song (or two or more) from that show. We learn how an opening number can set the tone and the premise for a show. “Comedy Tonight” saved A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. We hear several songs that were cut from shows as well as some lesser, yet clever songs from shows like Assassins, A Little Night Music, Evening Primrose, Saturday Night, Company, Follies, Road Show, Gypsy, and Merrily We Roll Along, among others. We also hear a special song that Sondheim wrote for this docu/revue – “God.”
Austin Cook (without using sheet music) vigorously provides piano accompaniment for the 38 tunes contained either as medlies or full songs. Cook’s tour de force performance (including his fine vocals) covers the songfest portion. Director Nick Bowling effectively utilizes Jaffrey D. Kmiec’s two tier set that allows ample room for Mike Turaj’s videos as well as nice staging centered by a grand piano. Emily Berman, Rebecca Finnegan, Amelia Hefferon, James Earl Jones II, Matthew Keffer, Yando Lopez, Stephan Rader and Adrienne Walker each had their moments to impress. Emily Rodgers’s choreography and movement design complimented the songs and performances. I was particularly impressed with the golden voice and style by Adreinne Walker, James Earl Jones II and Rebecca Finnegan. The harmonies, the acting out of each song, and the powerful choral performances demonstrated both Sondheim’s genius and the respect the cast has for the material. Despite the fact that singing Sondheim can be an artistic challenge, these skilled folks smoothly nailed such difficult tones as “You Can Drive a Person Crazy,” “Franklin Shepard, Inc,” “Sunday,” “Opening Doors” and “Children Will Listen” among other tongue-twisters in the Sondheim songbook.
Sondheim admits honestly his foibles, his idiosyncrasies, and he gives is some wonderful glimpses into his process for creating art. He talks about the value of collaboration and how he actually creates a song. He admits that creating a musical becomes a “family endeavor” that fulfills both a personal need and a creative urge. We sure get a rare glimpse into Sondheim the man and Sondheim the artist.
The amazingly effectual format of blending videos in their own words with live performance of the subject’s songbook works as insightful entertainment and educationally informative history, as well as a powerful glimpse into the creative process. This thoroughly engaging show is a “Must See” for Sondheim enthusiast; a “Must See” for those who wish to learn how to sing Sondheim; and for those who relish learning about a ‘living legend.” Sondheim on Sondheim is astonishingly perfect night of entertainment. If you only see one show this winter – make it Sondheim on Sondheim.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: February 14, 2015
For more info checkout the Sondheim on Sondheim page at theatreinchicago.com
At Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL call 773-777-9884, www.porchlightmusictheatre.org, tickets $39 -$45, Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 & 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, Thursday march 12 at 1pm, running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission through March 15, 2015