Monday, May 21, 2012

Sondheim on Sondheim, Great Lakes Theater

He gazes down from above like Big Brother, many times bigger than life-size, but there’s no one in the audience running towards the screen about to sling a sledgehammer. No, this is Stephen Sondheim up there, and we are all in his thrall.

In Sondheim on Sondheim, now at Great Lakes Theater, eight singers make up the live performers on stage. But they are dwarfed, literally and figuratively, by Sondheim’s appearances in videotape segments.

This roughly chronological journey through la vie Sondheim is an often enthralling biography for lovers of Broadway music. Since there is no composer and lyricist (or any combination of two people handling those tasks) that can truly compete with Mr. S., he’s granted the throne.

And he rules over us with a quirky, sardonic sense of humor. When addressing how he starts writing a song, he alludes to the booze he pours himself to help get the juices flowing. He even details his writing implements (yellow legal pad and an extra-soft pencil so he can spend a lot of time sharpening—and not writing).

Indeed, his explanations of how certain songs and shows evolved is intriguing, interspersed by the performers singing to illustrate the narration. This is how we learn the way “Comedy Tonight” became the blockbuster opening song in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

These are all stories Broadway buffs will appreciate, while others may be left a bit out in the cold. By jumping from show to show and song to song, it’s impossible to get a fix on the characters that inhabit Sondheim’s creations. And, as he says, his songs are all about character specificity.

The strong cast is led by Pamela Myers, who was in the original cast of Company and sings her signature song “Another Hundred People” at the start of Act Two. She nails that one and excels in two songs from the little-known and wonderfully weird Passion. But she is also given the final solo of “Send in the Clowns,” which feels a bit pale in comparison to a couple classic versions. (Some of the clumsier covers—a C&W banjo version?!--are lampooned nicely in Act One).

Other standouts include Emily Walton, who rides the hyper-paced “Getting Married Today” with razor-sharp enunciation, and Brian Sutherland who burnishes “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George into a splendid reflection on the creative process.

While Sondheim reveals a lot about the way he works, he doesn’t divulge much about his life. The one exception is shown in a clip from an interview with TV’s Diane Sawyer that is stupefying in its cruelty to the young Sondheim. But, as this show points out, he’s definitely getting the last laugh.

Sondheim on Sondheim
Through July 8, produced by Great Lakes Theater and PlayhouseSquare at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St.

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