Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Sondheim on Sondheim
Scottsdale Musical Theater Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Haunted, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Book of Mormon

Stephen Sondheim is considered by many to be the greatest living American musical theatre composer. The winner of multiple Tony Awards for Best Score as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Sondheim has had a lengthy career, having written the scores for over a dozen musicals as well as scores and songs for films. There have also been numerous revues of his musical contributions, the latest being Sondheim on Sondheim which is receiving its Arizona premiere in a smart, solid, and often moving production from Scottsdale Musical Theater Company.

Sondheim's body of work is major. From first writing just the lyrics for the blockbuster shows West Side Story and Gypsy to creating his own scores for such shows as Company, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods—his musical achievements are exceptional. While the other revues of his work have featured the many hits that he has written, Sondheim on Sondheim is the first one that includes Sondheim himself. Through the clever use of pre-recorded video pieces'some recorded specifically for the 2010 Broadway production along with archival footage of Sondheim on various TV shows'Sondheim is incorporated throughout the show to provide information on his life, his working habits, his music, and the creation process. Frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine conceived Sondheim on Sondheim and his choice to include these segments is what elevates the entire piece to something more than just an evening of some of Sondheim's best songs.

While not exactly a complete biography of the composer, and not presented entirely in chronological order, the inclusion Sondheim himself as part of the show adds a unique way to get to know the man behind the music along with the experience of hearing dozens of his songs. But the show doesn't just include his more well-known songs, like "Send in the Clowns," but also weaves in some of his lesser-known material, including some songs that were cut from shows or ones from his less successful works. While the show does have a few downsides, including the fact that sometimes the video segments break up the flow of the show and that some of Sondheim's major works, including Sweeney Todd, are barely represented, the video segments are always informative and the songs that are included add to the context of the piece by providing a background in to the creative process.

The cast for SMTC's production is just about perfect, with varied singing styles and featuring a nice mix of performers of different ages. While each of the eight cast members gets a moment or two to shine, it is Nicole Bond who has the best material. And she excels in several numbers, including a touching delivery of "Send in the Clowns" as well as two lovely duets. Her performance of "Beautiful" from Sunday in the Park with George that she sings with Michael Schauble is exceptionally moving. A nicely crafted pairing of "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along and "Losing My Mind" from Follies, which is sung by Marina Blue Jarrette, is remarkable in how the delivery of Sondheim's succinct lyrics about love in its many shapes and forms combine so beautifully and simply.

While the highlights are too numerous to mention, here are a few: Jarrette shows off her clear, strong voice throughout, including delivering a fun "Ah, but Underneath" from Follies, and Schauble exceeds in bringing out the emotion within the humor of "Franklin Shepard, Inc." from Merrily We Roll Along. Alex Crossland's smooth voice excels on "Being Alive" from Company as well as on "Is This What You Call Love?" from Passion. "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George receives a stirring performance from Matt Newhard, full of passion and understanding of the creative process. Curtis Moeller, Lindsay Newhard, and Chelsea Janzen round out the cast with each getting a moment of two throughout to show their strong vocal skills.

Hector Coris' smart direction includes the effective use of the various playing levels on the stationary set as well as just enough choreographed moments to provide variety to the evening. Coris is able to achieve exceptional performances from his cast which is exemplary, considering that, with just a few sequences where a few songs from a single show are used, all of the numbers are taken out of the context of their respective shows. This is both a testament to Coris' directorial skills as well as Sondheim's ability to write lyrics that are clear, clever, specific, and full of meaning.

Tylar Talkington's lighting design includes a few moments with the singers in shadows, which adds to the emotion of the lyrics. David Loud's arrangements combine with Moeller's musical direction to provide some stunning choral numbers and lush harmonies, while Michael Starobin's orchestrations sound superb played by the bright and full-sounding eleven-piece orchestra, expertly conducted by Kevin Hayward.

Both informative and entertaining and including solid performances and direction, SMTC's production of Sondheim on Sondheim will give you a better understanding of the creative process behind making musicals as well as an even greater appreciation for Sondheim himself.

The Scottsdale Musical Theatre Company's production of Sondheim on Sondheim runs through October 31st, 2015, with performances at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway. You can get information and tickets by visiting Tickets can also be ordered by calling 602-909-4215

Directed and Choreographed by Hector Coris
Musical Direction by Curtis Moeller
Orchestra Conducted by Kevin Hayward
Scenic and Lighting Design by Tylar Talkington

Matt Newhard
Alex Crossland
Nikki Bond
Marina Blue Jarrette
Michael Schauble
Curtis Moeller
Lindsay Newhard
Chelsea Janzen

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix