Ken Robinson, Leslie Odom, Jr., Chuck Cooper, Rema Webb,
and Natalie Venetia Belcon in Being Alive
(©  Richard Termine)
Ken Robinson, Leslie Odom, Jr., Chuck Cooper, Rema Webb,
and Natalie Venetia Belcon in Being Alive
(© Richard Termine)
Stephen Sondheim has often said he can only write for specific character situations. But it probably never occurred to him while tailoring "Losing My Mind" for a desperate housewife that the lament could apply to a soldier experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Or that "Not a Day Goes By" might be sung by a grieving Iraqi war widow clutching a folded American flag in one hand and dog tags in the other. However, these thoughts crossed Billy Porter's mind when he was developing Being Alive, his indisputably well-meaning but ultimately pretentious attempt to adapt the brilliant Sondheim songbook to the African-American experience, now making its world premiere at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Porter can certainly be patted on the back for trying something radically different with a body of work familiar to Broadway audiences and cabaret habitues. After all, tributes and homages to the 77-year-old composer-lyricist have been so commonplace for the last three decades that you gotta do something to stand out from the crowd. But in making certain this revue isn't simply another adulatory Sondheim grab bag, the intrepid Porter has gone too far in the other direction. It's not enough that he and arrangers/orchestrators James Sampliner, Joseph Joubert and Michael McElroy have jostled Sondheim's melodies into gospel, rhythm and blues, pop soul, and hip-hop patterns, but Porter has also forged a gilded-lily link to William Shakespeare.

The two wordsmiths have been paired before in West Side Story, which worked like gangbusters. But Porter's arranged marriage is a different matter. In hanging the show's narrative continuity on Jacques' "all the world's a stage" speech from As You Like It, Porter sets himself the task of depicting the seven ages of man (and woman) through the pithy phrases of both bards. What follows is 90 minutes of braiding fragments from 14 Shakespeare plays and sonnets with songs (or sometimes parts of songs) that Sondheim confected for 13 stage musicals, one movie (Dick Tracy) and a television musical (Evening Primrose).

For anyone counting, the song list is led by Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd, two of Sondheim's darker works. In the middle of humanity's seven ages, Porter sees marriage darkly, even inserting an oblique reference to "living on the down low," the term used in the black community to identify homosexual behavior among ostensibly heterosexual men. In a war sequence, he alludes to the above-mentioned Iraqi conflict -- a theatrical conceit nowadays becoming a cliche. And forget about much attention to humor. Apart from a segment where a hip gal wards off the moves of a would-be suitor, anything approaching the light touch is precluded.

The enterprising Porter's enormous efforts pay off, however, in the playing and singing. Everyone in his tireless seven-person cast has a voice to thrill patrons to the marrow. Joshua Henry gives "I Remember" a touchingly ruminative turn. Ken Robinson's "Losing My Mind" is stunning, despite its being interrupted in the middle for simulated war-front camera activity. Chuck Cooper is handed "Being Alive" and conveys its urgent emotions beautifully. Leslie Odum Jr. makes something of the prosaic "I Wish I Could Forget You."

Although N'Kenge garbles "I Know Things Now," she struts as if she knows she's the slyest fox on the premises. Rema Webb, who also has a walk to turn heads for blocks, scintillates whenever she's tapped to solo. The same goes for Natalie Venetia Belcon, for whom Porter has transformed "Send in the Clowns" to a vocalized exercise reminiscent of Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call." Jettisoning all but a few of Sondheim's unforgettable words doesn't work, but Belcon definitely does.

Being Alive has been devised with the great man's blessing and input. Why should he say no? He's being placed on a pedestal alongside Shakespeare!