New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

"Sondheim on Sondheim"
Studio 54, 254 West 54th St., Manhattan

What new evaluation can be made of the estimable Stephen Sondheim? What new words of praise can be uttered? It is well-known that he has shaken and reconstructed the Broadway musical—bringing a dark and contemporary meaning and a new style dof music to the time-honored genre. But the Great Man himself, though known and praised throughout the world, has remained an elusive figure.

But now, at last, Sondheim is revealed in the new Broadway show “Sondheim on Sondheim.” Sondheim chats with the audience throughout the evening, leaning back at his desk, discussing his work, friends, life, mentors. All on video, as it happens, but with a close-up camera.

At the same time, Sondheim music and lyrics unroll on stage, interpreted by eight gifted singers. Topped by the remarkable Barbara Cook, the cast includes (in alphabetical order) Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Erin Mackey, Euan Morton, Matthew Scott, Vanessa Williams, and Tom Wopat. Each has his moment in the sun—performing in duets, trios, solos, or in company.

Disappointment lies, not in the work of these professionals, but in the choice of songs. For the most part, these are lesser-known Sondheim tunes. Many of them never made it into the musicals or were dropped—and for good reason. No doubt, Lapine and company made these choices, trying to stay away from clichés. But better-known pieces were missed. Yet, “Sondheim on Sondheim” redeemed itself musically when Barbara Cook, close to the show’s end, offered “Send in the Clowns.”

The great joy of this show is the seamless way in which video and stage moments are welded together in beautifully imaginative staging. It is a series of “oohs” and “ahs” as the video piece puts on its own memorable performance, a performance which constantly reinvents itself. Credit goes to designer Peter Flaherty for his wit, skill, and aesthetic sense. Beowulf Boritt’s elegant set design and Ken Billington’s lighting meet these same high standards. As one considers musical revues in general, they tend to be tedious, with performers standing about. Not so with “Sondheim on Sondheim,” with its fluid moves from stage to screen. In all, one comes away from “Sondheim on Sondheim,” not with memories of the songs, but with a sense of what heights theater/video design can reach. And, fortunately, a more intimate acquaintance with Stephen Sondheim himself.

--Irene Backalenick
April 27, 2010

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