Sondheim on Sondheim

Porchlight Theatre hums with a revue of the iconic composer and lyricist.

The cast of Sondheim on Sondheim, Nick Bowling, at Chicago's Stage 773.
The cast of Sondheim on Sondheim, Nick Bowling, at Chicago's Stage 773.
(courtesy of Porchlight Music Theatre)

When it played on Broadway in 2010, Sondheim on Sondheim was a glossy star vehicle as well as a rich ode to the man rumoured in musical-theater circles (and on the cover of New York magazine) to be God. Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, and the great Barbara Cook appeared in that world premiere, conceived and directed by James Lapine. The show prominently featured the composer himself via video projections that were alternately hilarious, wrenching, self-effacing, and celebratory. Hours of unused video from the Broadway production ended up on the cutting room floor — a trove of material that Porchlight Theatre has sifted through for its reinvention of the show.

Directed by Nick Bowling and featuring newly incorporated footage, Porchlight's Sondheim on Sondheim is simply glorious — or, perhaps more accurately, complexly gorgeous. Minus household-name stars and the attendant layer of glitz that accompanies them, the revue's heart and soul rests wholly in the music and the man who created it.

The first indication that the production has no intention of replicating the New York version arrives early, when pianist and music director Austin Cook casually wanders onto the stage and takes a seat at the piano. Those 88 keys are center stage rather than off to the side, giving Cook a well-deserved spotlight. Once he starts playing, the impact is downright galvanizing. Cook is technically brilliant, but his playing is also ferociously emotional. It's an auditory tornado that sweeps you in and doesn't let go until the final note.

The actors whom Bowling has shaped into a seamless, abundantly personable ensemble are a splendid sonic match for the amazing pianist who anchors the show. As they run through more than two dozen Sondheim songs, ranging from obscure ("I'll Meet You at the Donut") to overplayed ("Send in the Clowns"), all the brains and emotion of the composer's vocabulary-enriching lyrics and infamously unhummable tunes reverberate through the intimate 148-seat house.

That ensemble comprises seasoned vets and newcomers, who are so startlingly good that you'll be flipping through the program between numbers trying to determine who these youngsters are. The bar is set high with the opening medley, as Emily Berman, Rebecca Finnegan, Amelia Hefferon, James Earl Jones II, Matthew Jeffer, Yando Lopez, Stephen Rader, and Adrienne Walker make their way through an intricate pastiche of Sondheim's compositions.

As an octet, the cast blends into a single voice moving through a spectrum that ranges from the exuberant, giddy hopefulness of youth ("Waiting for the Girls Upstairs") to the beautiful sadness and wisdom that layers into the soul with each passing decade ("Something Just Broke," "Anyone Can Whistle").

Everyone gets at least one solo spotlight as the revue winds on, and those solos are fine indeed. Radar and Jones bring the house down with the talk-show shenanigans of "Franklin Shepard Inc.," Rader hilariously manic as a lyricist on the verge of a nervous breakdown and Jones as a slick, business-savvy composer who has gone Hollywood. Jones is also charged with Sweeney Todd's "Epiphany," a number that boomerangs between fire-breathing rage and unbearable sorrow. Jones nails the catapulting vocals, crafting a showstopper that's both terrifying and indescribably mournful.

Yando and Berman deliver the pain of unrequited love in "Losing My Mind/Not a Day Goes By." Finnegan brings the belt and the grit to Gypsy's "Smile Girls." Walker embraces the crazy in "The Wedding Is Off" and then veers into haunting obsessiveness with "Loving You." Hefferon, who has the spritely blond sparkle and youth of a typecast ingenue, transcends that potential cliché when she brings dry wit to the can-do optimism of "Opening Doors" and razor-edged worldliness in "Now You Know."

Sondheim remains a driving force from lights-up to well-deserved curtain call, coming to life in Mike Tutaj's masterful video design. The multimedia elements of Sondheim on Sondheim have the power to take your breath away (from the rehearsal shot of West Side Story to Sondheim's recollection of his brutally cruel mother). Bowling navigates a delicate balance between those looming projections and the flesh-and-blood players they surround. Sondheim on Sondheim is often downright profound. And whether you're a Sondheim super fan or someone who doesn't know Frogs from Forum, it is always hugely entertaining.

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Sondheim on Sondheim

Closed: March 15, 2015