Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Young Frankenstein

Nick Nakashima, Solona Husband,
and Sleiman Alahmadieh

Photo by Kevin Berne
When he was just fourteen and called by Robert Kelley to come and play the piano for a local theatre company's rehearsal session, could then young William Liberatore ever imagine that nearly five decades later in 2024 he would be opening his fiftieth show as music director with that same company, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley? And for a show he and Kelley, the company's founder and artistic director for fifty years (now retired), had conceived together over the past two years? During those years, the two colleagues had collaborated in producing eighteen of Stephen Sondheim's twenty musicals along with three of his five revues–Sondheim being the most produced composer of TheatreWorks' 54-year history. What better credential to give the two dear friends to cull through the 334 available songs of one of America's greatest–if not the greatest–musical composers to celebrate his legacy in a newly conceived review.

Rather than just stage a collection of 36 songs selected from twenty-one musicals and reviews, Kelley and Liberatore took a quote from the great master, "The only reason to write is from love," and to use those chosen gems–many known worldwide and others quite obscure–to chronicle the progression of three sets of relationships through the stages of falling in, out, and in again of love. The TheatreWorks Silicon Valley world premiere directed by Kelley on stage and by Liberatore in music, Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration, boldly and beautifully offers exciting, insightful, funny, and emotionally powerful new interpretations and meanings for the songs included–all sung and brought to life by an exceptionally talented cast of six stellar actors.

Act One, "The Runthrough," takes place as six actors bustle through an upcoming show's rehearsal in the setting of a theater's massive backstage. A wall of stacked storage boxes labeled with various Sondheim musical titles, winding stairs to the upper levels of the backstage, and racks of costumes ready for the picking are all designed by Wilson Chin visually to convey the excitement and the piecing-together-from-scratch of a new musical.

Actors in street clothes, who grab from an occasional hat, scarf, or entire outfit the racks to enhance a number, begin their roles as random individuals but slowly progress through friendship, dating, lust and commitment into three sets of couples at varying levels of relationship. The casting includes twenty-somethings Sally (Solona Husband) and George (Sleiman Alahmadieh), thirty-somethings Helen (Melissa WolkKlain) and Gene (Nick Nakashima), and forty-plus-somethings Lena (Anne Tolpegin) and Ben (Noel Anthony). With joyful and hopeful voices, three singles ready for love–George, Sally, and Gene–let it be known that now is "Our Time" (from Merrily We Roll Along) before the entire cast sings an enticing "Love Is in the Air" (from Side by Side with Sondheim).

As the act progresses, individual actors move into a solo spotlight to shine with universally impressive voices, expressions and personas. As Sally, Solona Husband exuberantly sports big personality, rapid-fire execution of the near-impossible Sondheim lyrics, and a voice that vibrantly punches each note in "Everybody Say Don't" (from Anyone Can Whistle). Ben (Noel Anthony) croons with smooth flow "Love's a Bond" (from Saturday Night) before declaring the magnificently intoned, clear conclusion, "Though love is common, still and all, it's preferred."

As first feelings of puppy love increase into near-frenzied desires engulfing his whole being, Nick Nakashima nearly brings the house down as his glowing-in-spirit, gasping-in-anticipation Gene flits around like a fluttering butterfly while trying to convince himself (and all of us) "I'm Calm" (from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). While he watches, George and Sally maneuver their budding relationship toward their first kiss while singing a delightfully cute and cagey "Kiss Me" (from Sweeney Todd). Gene then relapses into an even more tizzy of a tornadic, fantastically sung reprise of "I'm Calm."

Newly mined humor from Sondheim's lyrics is a thread running through the first act as initial meetings meld into dates and on to marriage vows. Sitting at a bar in back-and-forth fantasizing, George and Ben bring new hilarity to a popular classic as they swizzle drinks and wish for "Pretty Women" (from Sweeney Todd). Sally vacillates her attention and intentions between a traditional, businessman type (Gene) and a militaristic Prince of Wales (Ben) before gleefully settling on George as the flannel-shirted "The Miller's Son" (from A Little Night Music). Helen, Lena, and the entire cast combine talents in a start-and-stop marriage scene of "The Wedding Is Off" (from Sondheim on Sondheim) where exaggerated facial expressions, comic antics, and harmonized voices combine for an Act One finale.

As cast members step forward, each to voice a line of "Putting It Together" (from Sunday in the Park with George), they slowly don from formal clothes to ready themselves for Act Two, entitled "The Dress Rehearsal." While there are a few moments still tinged with humor, Act Two sees the three couples' marriages progress through initial adjustments in noisy apartment neighborhoods, two becoming three with the arrival of a baby, coupled interests waning as eyes begin to wander, and the inevitable disappointments, hurt and anger of break-ups. New mothers Lena and Helen lyrically and reflectively singing in duet "Children Will Listen" (from Into the Woods), and new dad George promising a sleeping baby "nothing's gonna harm you" ("Not While I'm Around" from Sweeney Todd) are touching moments before things start heading south for the couples.

In a laugh-out-loud, big-voiced "Agony Reprise," Gene and Ben guzzle their regrets and their drinks at a local bar, each having second thoughts of "happily ever after" much like the two Princes from Into the Woods. The same musical's "Any Moment" and "Moments in the Woods" are musical pathways for Ben and Helen to cheat on their spouses and then to reflect (at least for Helen) on what in the hell just happened.

With a voice that zings with stinging bite, Anne Tolpegin's Lena sings "Could I Leave You?" (from Follies) to an ignoring husband buried in his newspaper (Ben). Later, her gorgeously subdued, reflective "Send in the Clowns" (from A Little Night Music), quietly sung with powerful effect, illustrates the consequences of a failed relationship–the song made even more beautiful as her voice is in an intertwined duet with the emotional notes played on piano by William Liberatore.

Just as it happens every time I see Sunday in the Park with George, tears freely flow as Helen and Gene sing a song of parting but also of supportive encouragement for the life beyond without each other. Their sublimely rendered, sustained notes of "Move On" still ring in my ears and tug at my heartstrings a day later.

Robert Kelley and William Liberatore realize along with Sondheim that love is whimsical, complicated and magical in its cycling through the phases of our lives. Beautiful and surprising things happen to our three couples as they deliver a heartfelt, "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" (from Road Show), before concluding the evening with surety that love and loving is just a vital part of "Being Alive" (from Company).

As wonderfully sung are the solos, duets, trios, and total ensemble pieces, the accompanying feelings and interpretations that are rendered through the piano mastery of William Liberatore are a huge factor in the musical success of the evening. His and Kelley's decision not to have an orchestra tackle Sondheim's demanding scores is brilliant, instead letting the lyrics reign supreme with just a piano's notes as musical partners (along with occasional drum beats by Artie Storch).

Much of the evening's magical enchantment comes from both the slow shifts and the sudden bursts of color and light created by award-winning designer Pamila Z. Gray. Likewise, TheatreWorks veteran and audience favorite for many years (i.e., over 60 productions), Fumiko Bielefeldt, once again has designed costumes that speak their own language of character and musical understanding as well as help identify couples as the relationships mature. Nary a lyric is lost, due to another TheatreWorks work horse (over 75 past productions), sound designer Cliff Caruthers.

Anyone who has followed Robert Kelley and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley as closely as I for a number of decades knows that Sondheim is baked deep into the fabric of the company he founded in 1970. Such deep roots make possible new twists and turns and a new life form for the collection of thirty-six of Stephen Sondheim's best that will now be forever known as Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration.

Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration, presented by by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, runs through June 30, 2024, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit or by phone at 877-662-8978.