Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
There is both good and bad news for “Being Alive,” the Stephen Sondheim revue now making its debut at the Westport Country Playhouse. Its strengths lie in the staging, the performers and of course the Sondheim music. And high praise goes to designers Allen Moyer (set) and Kevin Adams (lighting).
But now the bad news. Billy Porter, who conceived the show, claims to have combined Sondheim with Shakespeare and African-American culture. A heady mix indeed, but why Shakespeare with Sondheim? Any one can find a Shakespearean quote for any occasion, but to what purpose in this show? And there is little to support Porter’s claim that African-American culture is part of the mix, despite an occasional gospel-like feeling and the cast of African-American performers. Striving to spell out the message that life is worth living, Porter comes up with a mish-mash. Though Shakespeare has served as inspiration for many artistic endeavors, it adds nothing this time around.
Porter has opted for the particular Sondheim songs which best exemplify his own upbeat message. Given Sondheim’s own bittersweet take on life, Porter is hard put to find those positive statements. Thus a disappointing choice of Sondheim tunes—certainly not his best or most representative. And when Porter finally gets to the composer’s marvelous “Bring in the Clowns” (which suggests that life has passed the singer by), Porter has his singer merely hum the song. This is outrageous, particularly since the gifted Natalie Venetia Belcon could have pulled out all the stops and packed an emotional wallop. But, no, she is allowed to merely hum the tune.
Also disappointing is the fact that Sondheim’s clever, moving lyrics (so appropriate to the age in which we live) are often lost in overuse of mikes. Deep notes come across best, slow songs over the rapid patter, men over women. N’Kenge, a fine performer when it comes to creating characters, is particularly guilty of this, and one longs for a score in hand to follow her numbers.
Porter moves his singers smoothly from one number to the next, as N’Kenge, Belcon, Chuck Cooper, Joshua Henry, Leslie Odom, Jr., Ken Robinson and Rema Webb, all fine performers, sing their hearts out. Ultimately, they turn the stage into a near-religious setting, almost a revival meeting.
All told, this show is strictly for Sondheim fans, but fans who can forgive the choice of tunes, the over-miking, and the dollop of Shakespeare.
-- Irene Backalenick
Aug. 29, 2007