Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) consistency produces talented young musical theater performers at the beginning of their careers. It is quite appropriate then that these students should perform a show written by America's most accomplished musical theater writer at the start of his own promising career. Thus is the case with CCM's Spring Workshop presentation of Stephen Sondheim's Saturday Night.
Saturday Night, though written in the 1950s, received its world premiere only a few years ago. The musical likely would never have been produced if not for the fact that the score is by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim. When the show's original producer died, and no one else stepped in to finance it, the piece was shelved for forty years until productions in London, Chicago, and New York within the past few years. The musical, with a book by Jules Epstein, follows a group of young Brooklyn adults trying to find love and success in the Spring of 1929. Gene is the most ambitious of the bunch and dreams of striking it rich in the stock market. He wants to have the nice things in life, instead of just pretending he does, as when he sneaks into fancy places dressed in tails. Most of his buddies are busy lamenting being alone on yet another Saturday evening. Gene meets Helen, who on this particular evening, is also trying to act her way into the Plaza, and a connection is made. Gene loses his friends' money, along with his cousin's car, when the stock he invested in flops. However, by the end of the show, a lesson is (hopefully) learned and a happy ending is in sight.
To hear a score by Sondheim that is mostly unfamiliar, if not "new", is obviously a treat. Saturday Night sounds as though it was written in the 1950s, and there are also many hints at the genius level of writing that the legend would eventually achieve. His lyrics are strong and witty as usual. His music is more straightforward and pleasantly melodic than many of his later pieces. Sondheim's skill in musical composition is evident, but the level of complexity is lower than for his subsequent musicals. A number of the songs have appeared in Sondheim revues or on compilation recordings, but it is nice to hear them here in context. Highlights include "What More Do I Need?", "Saturday Night", and "So Many People". The book is often funny, and reflects a 1950s sentimentality in many ways. The story possesses a conclusion that provides much too easy of a resolution, where Gene really doesn't face the consequences of his actions to an appropriate level. However, the book is generally tight and believable in dialogue and plot.
Saturday Night is a good choice for CCM, as the characters are similar in age to the students performing the roles. This production featured no seniors, as they were busy practicing and performing their senior recital in Cincinnati and New York during the rehearsal for this show. If the performers as a whole are not as polished as their graduating counterparts, they are still very talented and hard-working future professionals. In the lead roles of Gene and Helen, John-Andrew Clark and Annie Leri are impressive. They sing Sondheim's tunes wonderfully (and while maintaining the various accents required for the roles) and are surprising adept actors. Each communicates the emotions of their characters skillfully, using facial expressions, body language, and vocal delivery to great effect. Nick Belton, Will Ray, Matthew Tweardy, Leo Nouhan, Leigh Ann Wielgus, Barry James, Doug Barton, and Melissa Bohon do well in supporting roles. The chorus members are also strong performers and provide evidence to further bright years for CCM audiences.
Director Jeff Griffen does a stellar job of leading his young performers for this production. His interesting choice to expand the cast by five members (past the recent Off-Broadway mounting) not only gives opportunities for more students to perform, but he also puts these additional actors to good use, allowing for a fuller representation of many scenes, especially those involving Gene's daydreams. Musical Director Brian Katona leads an accomplished four-piece band.
The Studio Theatre space for CCM's workshops unfortunately suffers from bad acoustics and Saturday Night joins the list of shows hampered by sound problems. Many lyrics are inaudible and the balance between the singers and band also is in need of improvement. This is not the fault of the performers or musicians, but rather a liability of the performance space.
The set design by Tricia Thelen is both attractive and flexible. The main set pieces are separated and turned to form a front porch, the outside of a movie theater, a nightclub, a police station, and several other venues. The costumes were shades of black and white up until the final scene, where the vibrant colors are a sharp contrast. The costumes are likewise attractive and appropriate, but many in the audience were left pondering the significance of the change for the last scene.
University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music meets the high
expectations it has earned with its production of Stephen Sondheim's
Saturday Night. Cincinnati theatergoers can sleep well knowing
that for many Saturday evenings next school year, these young performers
will be eager and ready to entertain us. Saturday Night ran from April 26
- 28, 2001.
-- Scott Cain