Sondheim on Sondheim
Sondheim on Sondheim can be thrilling, but I would never call it easy to take. Stephen Sondheim is arguably the greatest musical theatre writer ever, but he's only written one hit song, "Send in the Clowns," from A Little Night Music. Much of his other music is dense, difficult to perform, and requires substantial concentration just to process the admittedly brilliant music and lyrics.
So, Moonlight is taking a risk with a difficult show that's hard to perform. Mostly, they pull it off, and sometimes they do a lot better than that.
Mr. Lapine makes certain that Sondheim on Sondheim puts its subject front and center by actually doing so. Mr. Sondheim speaks, frequently and with eloquence, via video. He tells his life story and introduces individual numbers, particularly ones that were cut from or revised for various shows (including a number that was performed only onceat an out-of-town tryout for the musical Gypsy.)
There's little that is revelatory in Mr. Sondheim's story. It's basically been told, in one form or another beforethe difficult childhood, the almost accidental apprenticeship with Oscar Hammerstein, the struggles with his sexuality and with intimacy. We do get a few fascinating tidbitsfor example, the master likes to work lying down, the better to nap as needed, and he's particular about what sort of yellow pad and pencil he uses. Much of the video was made for the production, but there is a fair amount of archival footage included, giving the audience a chance to see Mr. Sondheim at various stages of his life.
The music is mostly a survey of the different forms in which Mr. Sondheim has written. Much of it will be familiar to those who have followed his work, but since he's an acquired taste there may be quite a bit that is new or unfamiliar to many audience members.
All of which practically screams for a crew of outstanding Sondheim artists to make certain that audiences "get" the songs for both their intellectual and emotional content. Moonlight has succeeded in hiring one outstanding Sondheim artistMelissa Fernandesand several other good ones (Ashlee Espinosa, Charlie Gange, Eric Hellmers, Heather Lundstedt, and Jason Webb). The difference between "good" and "outstanding" in this case is that Ms. Fernandes delivers every time while the others put some songs over well and others not so well.
Fortunately, things never get to the point of the hilarious survey of YouTube performances of "Send in the Clowns" that's played in the video. But more attention to detail in the individual performances would improve them substantially.
A firm directorial hand might have helped matters, but director DJ Gray's credits are mostly in choreography (which she does supply the cast with simply and effectively). Ms. Gray worked on the Broadway production of Sondheim on Sondheim, and her other Sondheim credit is Merrily We Roll Along. Not surprisingly, then, two of the most effective numbers in the show are from Merrily: "Franklin Shepherd, Inc.," which Mr. Gange performs with furious glee, and "Opening Doors," which Mr. Sondheim called the number that most reflects his personal experience.
The other element that clearly helps the overall quality of the performance is the crack six-piece orchestra, directed by Moonlight's ace, Elan McMahan, and positioned behind the performers. Much of the rest of the technical elements are utilitarianand in this case that's not a criticism.
Thanks to Mr. Glaudini and Moonlight for taking this risk, and to its suburban audiences for supporting it. Thanks especially to Ms. Fernandes for savoring Sondheim as she does.
Moonlight Stage Productions presents the San Diego premiere of Sondheim on Sondheim through March 1, 2015, at the Avo Theatre in the village of Vista, an approximately 45-minute drive from downtown San Diego. Performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm. Ample free parking is available near the theatre. Tickets are $32 with discounts and student rush available. Visit http://moonlightstage.com for ticket and other information.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, conceived by James Lapine. Directed and choreographed by DJ Gray; Musical Director and Conductor: Elan McMahan; Scenic Design: N. Dixon Fish; Lighting Design: AJ Paulin; Sound Design: Jim Zadai; Costume Design: Roslyn Lehman and Renetta Lloyd; Properties: Bonnie Durben; Stage Manager: Sarah Ahlquist.
Cast: Ashlee Espinosa, Melissa Fernandes, Charlie Gange, Eric Hellmers, Heather Lundstedt, and Jason Webb.