Sondheim on Sondheim

Part revue, part musical-theater history, at Lyric Stage.

Leigh Barrett, Davron S. Monroe, Aimee Doherty, and Christopher Chew in Sondheim on Sondheim, directed by Spiro Veloudos, at Lyric Stage Company.
Leigh Barrett, Davron S. Monroe, Aimee Doherty, and Christopher Chew in Sondheim on Sondheim, directed by Spiro Veloudos, at Lyric Stage Company.
(© Mark S. Howard)

To many, the very mention of Sondheim is like a special kind of prayer, and no opportunity to take in his work should ever be missed. Not even, in this case, the well-intentioned but sparkless Sondheim on Sondheim now playing at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.

Conceived by longtime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, Sondheim on Sondheim is a musical revue with a novel twist that instantly sets it apart from most other humdrum revues: We get to hear from the master himself. In his own words, and through videotaped interviews and archival footage, Sondheim opens up about both his personal and professional life. The show is full of the kind of trivia and stories that diehard theater buffs live for, and our rare glimpse into Sondheim's creative process is indispensably riveting. (He still writes by hand with a soft-lead pencil on a 32-line yellow legal pad while lying down and sipping vodka.)

Musical revues tend to be a stroll through "been there, done that" territory, but the songs that make up Sondheim on Sondheim are also what set it apart: It is far from a hit parade of his best-known songs, though it does feature a generous handful of perennial favorites. There are also a few alternate songs or cut songs from shows like Company, Follies, and Gypsy. While the opportunity to hear both the cut songs and the stories behind them is fascinating, the most of Sondheim on Sondheim's success depends on the audience's familiarity with Sondheim's musicals. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

When Sondheim is talking about "Smile, Girls," a song cut from Gypsy, he mentions that the song was cut because it held up the show. While it is momentarily exciting to be able to hear what might have been, so, too, does it hold up this show. In fact, the most entrancing part of Sondheim on Sondheim is Sondheim himself. And you want to hear more of him without the musical number interruption. Interestingly, this feeling wasn't quite so evident in the 2010 Broadway production, which featured Broadway stars like Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, and Norm Lewis. However, it seems that both the show's flaws and limitations are more apparent in this intimate production, directed by Spiro Veloudos.

There is also a choppiness that comes from taking many of the numbers out of context, then presenting them in a semicontextualized way. This is most trying in the instances of "Epiphany" from Sweeney Todd and in the four-number section devoted to Passion. The segments that worked best seemed to be completely removed from the revue happening around them: Veloudos hits a home run with the Merrily We Roll Along and Assassins portions. Most of the inherent unevenness has more to do with the way the show is structured and less to do with Veloudos' sharp-looking production, though there are some stumbles among the capable cast of eight.

The accomplished Christopher Chew is most affecting when he is on his own; his "Epiphany" is sharp and ferocious, and though his "Finishing the Hat" lacked fire, it was a lovely take on the song. It is in the grin-heavy, buoyant ensemble numbers, however, that Chew is less convincing; he appeared out of place when bopping and weaving along with the group.

Mala Bhattacharya’s crystal-clear soprano is an asset, and Davron S. Monroe delivers a stirring "Being Alive", though his melodramatic expressions and gestures often seem at odds with the material. Patrick Varner is a major standout, especially in the Merrily We Roll Along numbers. Leigh Barrett is a serious asset here: Her Fosca in the Passion numbers is sublime, and her "In Buddy's Eyes" is just about perfect . Her success seems to stem from some diligent character study, or at least a sumptuous knowledge of Sondheim’s characters.

The invaluable Aimee Doherty is terrific in "The Wedding Is Off," a cut song from Company, which shows off her effortless gift for musical comedy. Should Boston get a production of Gypsy anytime soon, Doherty would make a spectacular Gypsy Rose Lee, as evidenced here with her striptease "Ah, But Underneath," written for Diana Rigg in the London production of Follies. Barrett and Doherty duet for what should be a spine-tingling mash-up of "Losing My Mind" and "Not a Day Goes By," though here it is sung far too prettily, completely missing the desperate, aching sorrow of the lyrics. Maritza Bostic and Sam Simahk are flawlessly convincing, especially in their several Merrily We Roll Along numbers.

Sondheim on Sondheim looks and sounds sterling; videos play on three different marquees above a glossy stage, handsomely designed by David Towlun, and sound designer Andrew Duncan Will strikes the perfect balance between the orchestra, the performers, and the multimedia. The 8-member orchestra, led with incredible finesse by Jonathan Goldberg, is an awesome achievement.

It was occasionally difficult to get past Ilyse Robbin's jazz hand choreography, which is better suited to cruise ships than Sondheim, which is at odds with both the gifts of the performers and Sondheim's music.

Still, Sondheim on Sondheim is an indispensable look into the mind of a genius. Though the show is unevenly effective throughout, the sum here is infinitely greater than the parts. Director Spiro Veloudos' passion for Sondheim is palpable, and though Sondheim occasionally has trouble getting off the ground, once airborne, it's a beautiful thing.

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Sondheim on Sondheim

Closed: February 20, 2016