Being Alive, at the Westport Country Playhouse through September 9th, is billed as a musical revue – one which includes more than 30 Stephen Sondheim songs and timely verse from William Shakespeare. The truth, more accurately, is that this is a 90-minute performance piece. Billy Porter, who created and directed the production, is audacious as he transforms the material through interface with African-American genres including jazz, blues, rap, and soul.
One must open his musical sensibility to appreciate the work since it is: original, atypical, and an acquired taste. Similarly, it might take some ear training for people living in this country to grow accustomed to music from the Far East as presented through instruments such as the sitar. The positive effects, however, grow. The same might be the case as one listens to Wagnerian opera. It takes time to comprehend the music. At The Westport Playhouse, the theatergoer might very well begin to realize Porter's intent and evolve while watching Being Alive.
N'Kenge, Ken Robinson, Leslie Odom, Jr., Chuck Cooper, Rema Webb,
Natalie Venetia Belcon and Joshua Henry
One probably walks into the lovely Westport Playhouse thinking Sondheim. He wrote the lyrics for all the classic West Side Story tunes. He gave us "I'm Still Here" from Follies. Being Alive brings us "Children Will Listen," "There Won't Be Trumpets," "Send In The Clowns" and many more.
It is essential to note that Sondheim melodies are oftentimes short of sugary sweet. In fact, he writes in a minor key and the dissonances are signature to his canon. Enter Billy Porter, who has been thinking about working with Sondheim's music for nearly a decade. Porter is a multi-talented performer who has appeared on Broadway many times. Now he works with seven wondrous singers (Natalie Venetia Belcon, Chuck Cooper, Joshua Henry, N'Kenge, Leslie Odom, Jr., Ken Robinson, and Rema Webb). The animated Mark Berman, on keyboard, leads the five person (visible, rear of stage) electric band. Tasha Michelle is listed as Pit Singer.
The production begins with a portion of the recognizable "Seven Ages of Man" speech drawn from As You Like It. Every so often, an actor evidences Porter's aspiration to mix Shakespeare with Sondheim. One such example occurs as a performer delivers, from the Bard, What a piece of work is man.
Frankly, one would more specifically cherish or at least value Being Alive if given the opportunity to watch the show twice. Assimilating all of the material cold, so to speak, isn't easily accomplished. That said, "Children Will Listen" is a highlight, as most of the voices come together. Within the segment entitled "The World At War," both Joshua Henry with "I Remember" and Ken Robinson singing "Losing My Mind" are superb. Natalie Venetia Belcon hums rather than sings "Send in the Clowns" with lovely, moving results. The on-stage artists are affecting and remarkably skilled. The production requires immense discipline on their part. It is clear that they need to withhold any impulse to release voice and emotion unless these are within Porter's construct.
Those involved with music, orchestrations and arrangements, including James Sampliner, Joseph Joubert, Michael McElroy, and Porter, deserve laudatory nods. Designer Allen Moyer furnishes chairs, stands and staircases which the actors position as they deliver lyrics and lines. Kevin Adams' lighting shifts mood and tone.
The final two numbers, "Being Alive" and "Sunday," permit the actors to more liberally let fly with voice and movement. Here is one guess that many theater patrons were expecting that sort of freer performance throughout. Yet, Porter beautifully sculpts the form of Being Alive so that it will never quite be replicated. One needs to catch and ride that well-delineated wave to more fully experience such insightful and spirited theater.
Being Alive continues at The Westport Playhouse in Westport, Connecticut through September 9th. For ticket and schedule information, visit westportplayhouse.org or call (203) 227-4177.
- Fred Sokol