By Pat Launer
Spend an evening with Stephen Sondheim. The brilliant composer/lyricist will show you around his place. He’ll point out the Baldwin piano he got “at cost,” that once belonged to Leonard Bernstein. He’ll play for you. He’ll even sing for you (though honestly, maybe that’s not the best idea).
And he’ll tell you about his less-than-stellar upbringing: a divorce when he was 10, and life with a mother who didn’t seem to care whether he was there or not. Fortunately, he latched onto the neighbor — who happened to be Oscar Hammerstein, one of the greatest musical theater lyricists/librettists. As Sondheim tells us, Hammerstein taught him everything he knows and had an extreme influence on his life-path. “If it weren’t for the Hammersteins,” who became his surrogate parents, “I don’t know if I’d be alive.”
Through interviews taped over the years, some specifically for this show, which premiered on Broadway in 2010, winning a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical Revue and a Drama League Award for Distinguished Production of a Musical, the Grand Master of the American Musical tells us about how he works (lying down, writing in soft pencil on yellow legal pads with exactly 32 lines), what kind of songs he prefers to write (don’t ever ask him to create a generic “torch song.” Tell him all the details of the character and the breakup, and he’s on the case), and how some of his songs and shows came about (mostly adapted from other sources). He never wanted to write the book to his musicals, he says, because “playwriting is too difficult.” Being an only, lonely child, he “love[s] collaboration.”
Billed as a “multimedia revue,” the show features Sondheim classics and less-familiar songs, as well as numbers cut from his productions during his expansive 62 year career (he’s now 85). Nineteen of his shows are represented, from his student efforts to the greats: “West Side Story” (for which he wrote lyrics only), “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” “Company,” “Follies,” “Passion,” “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Into the Woods,” “Assassins” (the show that “came closest to what the book-writer and I wanted. Every time I see it, I can’t think of any way to improve it”), “Sunday in the Park with George” (“closest to my heart,” because it tries to capture the “trance-out” state of the creative process), “Merrily We Roll Along” (in which he put his most frankly autobiographical song – the only one he’ll cop to, anyway — “Opening Doors,” about his beginnings, along with young musical theater colleagues like Mary Rodgers, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick).
In response to an interview question about his dark, disturbed characters, Sondheim blithely confesses: “I’m a neurotic myself, and I like neurotic people. Everyone has problems.” But he considers himself “essentially an optimist.”
Yet, an undertone of melancholy, a bittersweet note, courses through the life stories, as it does the songs, which are marvelously interwoven. The show was conceived and directed on Broadway by James Lapine, a frequent Sondheim collaborator. The magnificent arrangements are by David Loud; the outstanding orchestrations by Michael Starobin, and the marvelous video was created and designed by Peter Flaherty.
Once again, Moonlight Stage Productions’ producing artistic director Steve Glaudini (who was just named Producer of the Year by the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle) has snagged the local premiere of a recent, high-profile show. He brought in DJ Gray, who has Broadway and national tour credits, to direct and choreograph. She cast a versatile ensemble of six who configure and re-configure for various solos, duets and ensemble numbers. The wonderful music director and conductor, Elan McMahan, also plays piano with her fine six-piece orchestra.
Though the women, overall, outshine the men, each performer gets a knockout number or two. The Full Company presentations are especially strong (“God,” about Sondheim himself, is particularly entertaining, as are the gorgeous, tight harmonies in “Something’s Coming” (from “West Side Story”) and the sensational first-act closer, a stunning medley of songs culminating in “Sunday”).
Melissa Fernandes is a standout, able to bring a fully-formed character to life in a short song. She’s heart-rending in “Loving You” (from “Passion”), and the iconic “Send in the Clowns” (from “A Little Night Music”). Heather Lundstedt is especially funny in “The Gun Song” (from “Assassins”). Ashlee Espinosa is excellent with “So Many People” (from Sondheim’s first show, “Saturday Night”). Eric Hellmers does a very scary Sweeney Todd (“Epiphany”), Charlie Gange is most amusing in ”Franklin Shepard, Inc” (from “Merrily We Roll Along”) and Jason Webb does a number on “Finishing the Hat” (from “Sunday in the Park with George”).
The set (N. Dixon Fish) nicely frames the projection screens with a rough-hewn, backstage look; the lighting (AJ Paulin) is notable, except for an occasionally wandering follow-spot, and the sound (Jim Zadai) works well in the Avo Playhouse. The costumes (Roslyn Lehman and Renetta Lloyd), unfortunately, are neither attractive nor flattering, except for the touching red-and-black finale.
Exciting for its insights, informative in its backstories, and very well sung, this tribute is a must-see for the legions of Sondheim fans and fanatics — and those who still aren’t convinced.
- “Sondheim On Sondheim” runs through March 1 at the Avo Playhouse, 303 Main St., Vista
- Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. There’s an informal talkback with the cast after each Friday performance.
- Tickets ($24-$32) are available at 760-724-2110 and online at moonlightstage.com
- Running time: 2 hrs. 30 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.
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