While there have been numerous musical revues created using the songs of Stephen Sondheim, none offers the personal insight into and from the songwriter himself like Sondheim on Sondheim, which debuted in New York in 2010. Wright State University (WSU) is currently presenting a well-performed and crafted production of the show.
Sondheim on Sondheim is part musical revue and part documentary, as video of musical theater's greatest living legend, Mr. Sondheim himself, is intermittently shown, providing commentary and information on his life, his approach to writing, insights on shows and performers, and explanation of the challenges and factors that provided him with the complex and thought-provoking ideas which he then musicalized. In many cases, the audience sees Sondheim (via projection of the video on a large screen in the back of the performance space) explain a song or show first, and then the cast perform the piece.
It must be extremely difficult to choose a small selection of songs by this master for a revue, as he has written so many wonderful ones. This musical scrapbook includes songs from almost all of his shows (Pacific Overtures is notably absent) and also includes many cut songs. Many of his most popular songs are included, such as "Comedy, Tonight," "Being Alive," "Losing My Mind," "Send in the Clowns," and "Something's Coming," but there are also some lesser known gems like "Multitudes of Amys" (cut from Company), "Ah, But Underneath" (from the London production of Follies), and "So Many People" (from Saturday Night). Rarest of all are "God," a new song written for this show, and "Smile, Girls," cut from Gypsy after one performance. Especially effective are sections focusing on the songs from Passion, the act one musical montage closer of "Ever After"/"A Weekend In the Country"/"Sunday," and the two intense songs from Assassins in the second act.
Wright State is one of the region's best musical theater programs, and a lot of talent is displayed in this studio production. On Broadway, the production consisted of eight performers. At WSU, there are again eight principals, but also an ensemble of four additional performers. The most impressive work is turned in by Cassi Mikat. She applies her sumptuous vocals splendidly to songs such as "Take Me to the World," "I Read," and "Loving You" from Passion, "In Buddy's Eyes," and "Anyone Can Whistle," and has an intensity and honesty in her performance that is captivating. Katie Momenee impresses with both comedic numbers ("The Wedding Is Off") and some very touching moments ("Good Thing Going"), and is a strong singer. Nathan Pecchia has a booming voice which he puts to great use in "Finishing The Hat" and "Epiphany" (the only song from Sweeney Todd in the show), and is also one of the best comedic performers in the show. Logan Torbet is a capable singer and does well with the manic-energy and delivery of "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," but is also guilty of over acting in spots and not fully embodying some characters.
Abby Murray Vachon possesses a more classical voice, and is very effective in many moments throughout the show. She also conveys much through her facial expressions and other non-verbals. Kelsey Pohl skillfully tackles some of the more eccentric and youthful material, excelling especially with the songs from Merrily We Roll Along. Ian Benjamin performs a strong rendition of "Being Alive," and Keaton Eckhoff is solid and steady throughout. The four ensemble membersZachary Fretag, Natalie Girard, Caitlin Geisser, and Jim Millerare underutilized, but do well in the group numbers in which they appear. All of the singers are unmiked, and project well in the black box space.
Director Jamie Cordes provides active and apt blocking, and insures that the performers provide solid characterizations for each song as opposed to just performing them concert-style. He would do well to make sure that the video isn't restarted until after the applause from the previous song is finished, however, as the first few seconds of Sondheim speaking is muted by the clapping in almost every instance. Musical director Sean Michael Flowers leads a great sounding three-piece on-stage band and has the singers well-prepared.
Outside of the video projections, the technical aspects of this studio mounting are fairly straightforward and simple. Set designer Pam Knauret Lavernway has the show in an attractive living room style setting with area rugs, two staircases, and some furniture. The costumes by Emily Sollinger are suitable and handsome, and the lighting by Jessica Drayton is varied and apt.
Sondheim on Sondheim offers the chance to take a peek into the mind of a musical theater genius and get a glimpse of his personality, life moments, and creative process that has brought so many wonderful shows to fruition. Truthfully, there are so many songs not included, that there could be versions II and III of the show and still have many magnificent songs unused. In the meanwhile, the numbers in this show are wonderfully performed by the talented and earnest WSU students in a first-rate production of the show.
The musical continues in the Herbst Theatre at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, through April 26, 2015. For tickets and information, visit www.wright.edu/tdmp or call (937) 775-2500.