Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of In the Heights
There have been numerous musical revues created using the songs of Stephen Sondheim, and there will likely be more to come. However, none is likely to offer the personal insight into and from the songwriter himself like Sondheim on Sondheim, which debuted in New York in 2010. The recent University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) production boasted a talented cast, wonderful musicianship, and an entertaining presentation of Broadway gems from the master songwriter.
Sondheim on Sondheim is part musical revue and part documentary, as musical theater's greatest living legend, Mr. Sondheim himself, is shown intermittently on video providing commentary and information about his life, his approach to writing, insights on shows and performers, and explanations of the challenges and factors that provided him with the complex and thought-provoking ideas which he then musicalized. In many cases, the audience sees Sondheim (via projection on a screen in the back of the performance space) explain a song or show before the cast performs the piece. Sondheim on Sondheim was conceived and originally directed by James Lapine, a frequent collaborator of Sondheim.
It must have been extremely difficult to choose a small selection of songs by this master for such a revue, as he has written so many wonderful ones. This musical scrapbook includes songs from almost all of his shows (though it's odd that Pacific Overtures isn't represented, since the songwriter's favorite piece, "Someone in a Tree," is from the show). Many of Sondheim's most popular songs are included, such as "Comedy Tonight," "Being Alive", "Losing My Mind," "Send in the Clowns," and "Something's Coming", but also some lesser known gems like "Multitudes of Amys" and "The Wedding Is Off" (cut songs from Company), and "So Many People" from Saturday Night. Especially effective are sections focusing on the songs from Passion, the act one musical montage closer of "Ever After"/"A Weekend In the Country"/"Sunday," and the two intense songs from Assassins in act two (aided in this production by Nicholas Smith's stark lighting).
CCM seems to be a never-ending source for polished theater students ready to take Broadway by storm. This production boasted a cast of five seniors and three juniors, all quite talented, individually and collectively. Most noteworthy were Emily Fink (very effective in some of the more serious moments, including the Fosca sections of Passion), Phillip Johnson-Richardson (a penetrating "Being Alive"), and Alex Stone (a focused and passionate George in "Finishing the Hat"). The others, Bryce Baxter, Aria Braswell, Ciara Harris, Keaton Whittaker, and Gabe Wrobel, each had ample opportunities to shine and made the most of their numbers. No microphones were used for this production, and a few performers suffered a bit from the lack of amplification.
Director Aubrey Berg supplied active blocking and brought the mini stories that the songs or snippets represent alive. He could have improved the experience a bit by making sure that the video wasn't restarted until after the applause from the previous song was finished, however, as the first few seconds of Sondheim speaking was muted by clapping in almost every instance. Stephen Goers provided vibrant and fierce onstage piano accompaniment and musical direction, and Katie Johannigman's choreography featured some traditional dance (highlighted in "Ah, But Underneath," a song added to the London production of Follies) and apt movement throughout.
Sondheim on Sondheim is the chance to take a peek into the mind of a musical theater genius and get a glimpse of the personality, life moments, and creative process that have brought so many wonderful shows to fruition. The CCM production featured strong student performances and faculty leadership.
Sondheim on Sondheim at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Cincinnati OH, from October 5 7, 2017.