Category Archives: Sondheim

“Merrily We Roll Along”

Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia • 9 Septembre 2007 • 2pm

Went to have a second look at this attractive production. Since I was closer to the stage, I got a better look at Robert Perdziola’s beautiful costumes, their interesting colour scheme, and the way they evolve (or regress?) between the first and the second acts. The performance was a tad less polished with a few minor flubs here and there, and the absence of amplification was definitely a problem at times (some audience members complained during intermission)… but, again, I was overwhelmed by the sheer strength of the emotional denouement of the show. Well worth a trip.

“Merrily We Roll Along”

Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia • 8 September 2007 • 8pm
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth.

Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography: Karma Camp. Musical Director: Jon Kalbfleisch. With Will Gartshore (Franklin Shepard), Erik Liberman (Charley Kringas), Tracy Lynn Olivera (Mary Flynn), Tory Ross (Gussie Carnegie), Bayla Whitten (Beth), Christopher Bloch (Joe Josephson)…

There is something incredibly powerful about the way Merrily We Roll Along leads us to reflect upon roads not taken and choices that cannot be unmade. It is, unfortunately, not the most frequently performed of Sondheim shows, even though I was lucky to catch the very good production at the Derby Playhouse about four months ago.

The Signature production unfurls on a sleek and chic circular set that could be the interior of Mame’s mansion (huge staircase, grand piano, monumental door), bathed in surprisingly raw colours that seem to imply a voluntary distance from a realistic depiction. It is blessed by countless displays of directorial brilliance that contribute to make the show even more affecting, especially in Act 2. The clever choreography frequently winks at styles of the past, and there are pretty clear references to the “Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity a couple of times.

There are uniformly good performances from the cast. Erik Liberman, in particular, handles the tricky part of Charlie competently, even though it is of course difficult to erase the memory of Raúl Esparza at the Sondheim Celebration a few years ago.

The 13-strong orchestra gives a joyous rendition of Sondheim’s jewel of a score. I got the impression that some scenes, especially some musical numbers, lacked pace and could still be made a little bit tighter, but it is relatively early in the run, and they are still presumably working on making the necessary adjustments.

Additionally, this production raises the interesting question of amplification — or lack thereof — in musical theatre. Although an intimate space like the Signature Theatre lends itself naturally to a non-amplified performance, there are two obstacles that are particularly obvious. Firstly, most younger singers haven’t been taught how to project their voices without amplification. There are tremendous differences in the way the various actors handle this, and some numbers like “Now You Know” lose some of their strength because of that. Secondly, Merrily was written at a time when amplification was a given. There are songs where a line sung by a solo voice segues into a choral passage, itself followed in short succession by another solo. In spite of Jon Kalbfleisch’s commendable efforts to avoid drowning the voices, there are instances when the overall impression is one of awkwardness rather than the fluidity one would expect from such a bunch of talented people.

“Sweeney Todd”

Royal Festival Hall, London • 7 July 2007 • 7:30pm
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler.

Semi-staged concert. London Philharmonic Orchestra, Stephen Barlow. Director: David Freeman. With Bryn Terfel (Sweeney Todd), Maria Friedman (Mrs. Lovett), Daniel Evans (Tobias), Daniel Boys (Anthony), Emma Williams (Johanna), Philip Quast (Judge Turpin), Steve Elias (The Beadle), Rosemary Ashe (The Beggar Woman)…

I had been lucky to see Bryn Terfel’s masterful take on Sweeney Todd at Chicago’s Lyric Theatre in December of 2002… so I had great expectations for this semi-staged presentation, and rightly so because it turned out to be a hugely enjoyable experience.

Terfel brought a rare intensity to the part. Most of the time he sounded like each syllable could have cut through steel. He was outstanding throughout. Maria Friedman was a very good surprise, as her voice was fuller and more powerful than usual. She went 200% for the laughs and didn’t miss one. (She’ll be forgiven for her blank halfway through “A Little Priest” — thank God Terfel knew her lyrics, too — and for offering Tobias his bonbon far too early during “While I’m Around.”)

The rest of the cast was equally excellent, with the always reliable Philip Quast impersonating a fine Judge Turpin and a new face to me, Daniel Boys, as one of the very best Anthony’s I’ve seen.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra gave a fine rendition of Sondheim’s beguiling score. There were a lot less musicians than at the New York Philharmonic concert a few years ago, but the magic worked perfectly in the fine new acoustics of the hall.

Interesting how they spent over £90 million on renovating the Festival Hall, and it looks exactly the same as before. During the interval, I saw three VIPs within five minutes: Trevor Nunn, Gareth Valentine and Joanna Lumley (who looked stunning and was sitting exactly two rows behind me).

“Side By Side By Sondheim”

The Venue, London • 16 June 2007 • 8pm
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. With additional music by Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers & Jule Styne. Narration written by Ned Sherrin.

Director: Hannah Chissick. Associate Director and Choreographer: Adam Cooper. Musical Director: Michael Haslam. With Angela Rippon (Narrator), Alasdair Harvey, Josie Walker, Abbie Osmon.

I had never seen this 1976 Sondheim “compilation” show, a predecessor of Putting It Together and Marry Me a Little. I usually find that Sondheim songs do not “live” happily outside of their original habitat, but when the show is as expertly done as this production of Side By Side By Sondheim, the pleasure can be immense.

Beside the obvious cabaret chestnuts like “The Boy From…” and “I Never Do Anything Twice,” the show features a selection of songs mostly taken from shows written before 1976, although a song from Pacific Overtures has been added.
This production demonstrates that you can create memorable shows with two pianos, three singers and virtually no set. The two-piano arrangements (presumably by Musical Director Michael Haslam) are to die for. And the cast never ceases to amaze, in all the diversity of Sondheim’s style.

Director Hannah Chissick’s staging is full of invention and wit and is admirably complemented by Adam Cooper’s choreography. Some of the numbers actually come across better than any other staging I’ve seen.

There are interesting twists when the songs call for three men (“Pretty Lady”) or three women (“You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” “You Gotta Have a Gimmick”). It was also the first time I’d heard a man sing “Could I Leave You?” It certainly does show the song in a different light.

It’s a shame this production is closing early, because it is hugely successful entertainment.

“Into the Woods”

Royal Opera House (Linbury Studio Theatre), London • 16 June 2007 • 2:30pm (preview)
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine.

Conductor: James Holmes. Director: Will Tuckett. With Gary Waldhorn (Narrator), Gillian Kirkpatrick (Cinderella), Peter Caulfield (Jack), Anne Reid (Jack’s Mother), Clive Rowe (Baker), Anna Francolini (Baker’s Wife), Suzanne Toase (Little Red Riding Hood), Beverley Klein (Witch), Byron Watson (Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince [replacement]), Christina Raphaëlle Haldane (Rapunzel), Nic Greenshields (Rapunzel’s Prince)…

It is customary to refrain from commenting on a preview. However, this promises to be a fine production of Into the Woods, with a mostly fine cast and a lot of interesting stage work from director Will Tuckett. Some added underscoring as well as numerous sound and visual effects give the show a lot of unusual spice. The emphasis seems to be more on the comedic side, though, and the last scenes aren’t as moving as in most other productions I’ve seen.

Although I am a fan of Beverley Klein, I have to admit I wouldn’t have thought of her as an obvious choice to play the Witch. Her performance seems to be quite influenced by her recent stint as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, but it works, somehow. It is also a pleasure to see some reliable and regular West End faces, like Anna Francolini and Clive Rowe. (Nice prop: when the Baker (Rowe) and his wife (Francolini) finally have a baby, it is a nice brown colour.)

“Sweeney Todd”

Gate Theatre, Dublin • 2 June 2007 • 7:30pm
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler.

Director: Selina Cartmell. Musical Director: Cathal Synnott. With David Shannon (Sweeney Todd), Anita Reeves (Mrs. Lovett), Simon Morgan (Anthony), Lisa Lambe (Johanna), Robert Bannon (Tobias), Camille O’Sullivan (The Beggar Woman), Barry McGovern (Judge Turpin), Kenneth O’Regan (Beadle Bamford), Mark O’Regan (Pirelli/Fogg)…

Without doubt the best production of Sweeney Todd I’ve seen… and also one of the most thrilling experiences of my theatre-going life.

It’s a shame that we have to be content with seven musicians… and also that some dialogue has been cut, but the achievements of this production are such that those quibbles are quickly forgotten. The depth of Director Selina Cartmell’s work on the text (both dialogue and lyrics) is outstanding. Combining Brechtian grittiness with metaphoric representations and a solid dose of humour, the end result may be the best exploration of the work to date.

This production also shines through its use of space on the somewhat cramped stage of the Gate Theatre. It benefits greatly from the set design of David Farley, who has designed most recent productions at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. Even the last scenes, notoriously difficult to stage due to the fast-changing locations, are a master-class in the clever usage of space.

One highlight follows another: the virtuosic staging of the first act quartet, the breathtaking “Epiphany,” a perfectly hilarious “Little Priest,” the way Johanna is represented in the asylum as a caged bird, etc… Even the two curtains are awe-inspiring.

The cast is talented and dedicated. Anita Reeves, in her purple wig, is irresistible as Nelly Lovett. David Shannon is a great Sweeney. And Pirelli is given a first-rate treatment by the excellent Mark O’Regan.

“Merrily We Roll Along”

Derby Playhouse, Derby (UK) • 5 May 2007 • 7:30pm
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth. Based on the original play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Directed by Karen Louise Hebden. Musical director: Andrew Synnott. With Glyn Kerslake (Frank Shepard), Glenn Carter (Charley Kringas), Eliza Lumley (Mary Flynn), Julie-Alanah Brighten (Gussie Carnegie), Cheryl McAvoy (Beth Spencer), Michael Beckley (Joe Josephson)…

Merrily seems to affect me more each time I see it, and not only because it has a superb score. Life is about making choices, accepting compromises and going different ways — that, of course, gets all the clearer as time goes by. With its backward-moving story, Merrily ends as the young protagonists, aware that “their time” has come, get ready to engage life, strong in their certainty that their dreams will come true. Of course, we’ve just witnessed what’s going to happen in their lives. The contrast between their youthful idealism and the audience’s awareness of reality creates a hell of a powerful blow.

The Derby Playhouse continues its Sondheim series — after good productions of Company and Into the Woods. (I think there has been another show that I haven’t seen.) This production of Merrily We Roll Along shines mainly thanks to its focus on the dramatic aspects of the play. The strong work on the psychology of the characters pays off very powerfully in the end.

Among a uniformly strong cast, I was particularly impressed and moved by Eliza Lumley’s magnificent impersonation of Mary. Her metamorphoses throughout the show, as well as the countless ways in which she shows her love for Frank while he apparently hasn’t got a clue, are truly remarkable.

Sure, it was a shame to have to do with only six musicians… and the set design looked slightly awkward… but this fourth encounter with the show nonetheless left me shaken and disturbed. Which is a compliment, by the way.

“Follies”

City Center, New York • 10 February 2007 • 8pm
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Goldman.

Part of the Encores! series. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Musical Director: Eric Stern. With Victoria Clark (Sally), Donna Murphy (Phyllis), Michael McGrath (Buddy), Victor Garber (Ben), Mimi Hines (Hattie), Jo Anne Worley (Stella), Christine Baranski (Carlotta), Yvonne Constant (Solange)…

As chance had it, another semi-staged version of Follies was scheduled in New York less than a week after the London concert version. The staging concept was pretty much the same, with the orchestra on stage and a few runways and stairs. Unlike in London, the actors in New York weren’t off book, presumably to convince Equity that this was a concert version and not a staged production.

Overall, I was less impressed by the New York version because it had a lot less dramatic tension than the London concert. The principals were good, but I failed to experience the buildup of nervous energy that should occur during the first act. The performance looked and felt more like a reading of the show.

I love Victoria Clark, but her Sally was not the lost soul I think she should be. Clark should give a go at playing Phyllis: my intuition tells me she would be fine. Donna Murphy played Phyllis a bit more softly than is customary, but it gave her character some added depth that I rather enjoyed. Her line delivery was a bit too slow to keep the dramatic flow moving, though.

Michael McGrath did what he could with Buddy, which really appeared as the least well written of the four main characters. His voice failed him a few times, but he did fine with his dances. As for Victor Garber, I wasn’t completely convinced by his Ben until “Live, Laugh, Love,” which he did superbly. His nervous breakdown wasn’t quite as spine-chilling as Philip Quast’s, but it came close.

The older parts were a mixed bag. Yvonne Constant, who appeared on Broadway in La Plume de ma Tante, was an interesting alternative to Liliane Montevecchi, but her singing left much to be desired. Mimi Hines did fine with “Broadway Baby”. I liked Christine Baranski’s Carlotta… except when I didn’t like her. There were a few times when she went too hard for laughs, by changing her voice for instance… and that didn’t really suit her character.

Overall, this performance was quite enjoyable, in no small part thanks to Musical Director Eric Stern. Musical highlights included “Who’s that Woman?” and “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” which I’ve always been partial to. We were lucky not to have to endure the official concert version of the libretto, but the dialogue was abridged, which was a shame.

I can’t wait for the next opportunity to see the show!

“Into the Woods”

Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia • 8 February 2007 • 8pm
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine.

Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical Director: Jon Kalbfleisch. With Priscilla Cuellar (the Witch [understudy]), Daniel Cooney (the Baker), April Harr Blandin (the Baker’s Wife), Lauren Williams (Little Red Riding Hood), Stephen Gregory Smith (Jack), Donna Migliaccio (Jack’s Mum), Stephanie Waters (Cinderella), James Moye (Cinderella’s Prince / Wolf), Erin Driscoll (Rapunzel), Sean MacLaughlin (Rapunzel’s Prince)…

So the Signature has moved to its brand new home in Shirlington Village, not far from its original location. The irony is that the main stage is very reminiscent of the old black-box garage space; even the corridor that led to the auditorium in the original space has been lovingly recreated! But the facility is now state-of-the-art, with better seats, top-notch acoustics and ample backstage facilities. Plus there’s a smaller performing space beside the main stage.

This was my sixth production of Into the Woods and my fifth (I think) Signature production. Two reasons why I knew I would love it, and love it I did. There is no stage per se: the action takes place very much in the middle of the audience. That intimacy creates the perfect environment to showcase the outstanding quality of Sondheim’s lyrics (and, to some extent, of Lapine’s book). Many more “clever” lyrics hit home than in any other production I’ve seen.

The cast is very good, particularly on the male side: Daniel Cooney as the Baker, Stephen Gregory Smith as Jack and James Moye & Sean MacLaughlin as the Princes all give superlative performances. On the female side, Lauren Williams as Little Red Riding Hood was my favourite. The Witch was played by the understudy, Priscilla Cuellar, who did very well in spite of a few glitches considering the intricacies of the part, which involves manipulating a firing stick, doing a quick change on stage and disappearing screaming into a trapdoor.

Eric Schaeffer did his usual gret job and has managed to bring out a few nuances that I’d never seen in other productions. The whole show whizzes by like in a dream. Well done again!

“Follies” in Concert

London Palladium • 4 February 2007 • 7:15pm
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Goldman.

Musical Director: Richard Balcombe. Directed and choreographed by Bill Deamer. With Maria Friedman (Sally), Tim Flavin (Buddy), Liz Robertson (Phyllis), Philip Quast (Ben), Kim Criswell (Carlotta), Imelda Staunton (Hattie), Liliane Montevecchi (Solange), Meg Johnson (Stella), Josephine Barstow (Heidi), Bonaventura Bottone (Roscoe)…

The first time I ever attended a performance of Follies was on December 8, 1996 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. It was a concert performance taped for later broadcast by BBC Radio. Although the licensed concert version of Follies has a somewhat bastardized libretto (adding a completely unnecessary radio broadcaster, changing the dialogue and adding a reprise of “Waiting For the Girls Upstairs” at the end), I was thrilled by the experience. The atmosphere in the theatre was electric beyond description and the roar that overcame the auditorium when Stephen Sondheim came to bow at the end will always remain in my memory as a spine-tingling moment.

Seeing this performance of Follies in concert almost exactly ten years later at the similarly-sized London Palladium and with a similarly stellar cast was a bit like a trip back in time. And although I had seen six other productions of Follies in the meantime, the show once again struck me as an irresistible masterpiece of contemporary musical theatre.

Although the show started awkwardly with the audience failing to respond to Maria Friedman’s entrance, it then quickly gathered steam and the high points would be too numerous to list.

As soon as she started singing “Don’t Look at Me,” it became ovious Maria Friedman would be a fine Sally from a dramatic point of view. True, her voice is thin, but Friedman wisely uses it as a sign of her character’s frailty. In “In Buddy’s Eyes” and in “Losing My Mind,” she managed to continue treading the fine line her voice allows her. I have to admit there were a couple of times when I wished her voice had been a little more powerful, though.

Tim Flavin looks a bit too young to me to play Buddy, but he managed to give some interesting substance to what I consider to be the least satisfactorily written character of the main quartet.

Nobody could doubt that Liz Robertson would make a suitably dry Phyllis. And she was in good voice, too. Her “Could I Leave You?” was very good… and she did great with my favourite (music-wise) song in the score, “The Story of Lucy And Jessie” — although she left most of the dancing to the ensemble.

Philip Quast is the one I feel like bestowing the most praise upon. Not only has he got a gorgeously silky voice, but he also played his part wonderfully, ending with a blood-curling nervous breakdown. It was a shame he was not 100% comfortable with his songs — he fell behind or ahead of the music several times — because his would have been a definitive performance.

The four young counterparts were excellent. I believe Adam-Jon Fiorentino as Young Ben is the one who impressed me most (plus he’s drop-dead gorgeous, which didn’t spoil anything).

As for the older parts… can you spell “wonderful?” Their only problem was that some of them didn’t quite look old enough, but apart from that, what a riot they were.

Liliane Montevecchi couldn’t help it: she had to do a few high kicks while walking down the stairs! Her ”Ah, Paris!” was a hoot, mainly because she has now become like a caricature of herself… and God does it work!

Imelda Staunton was nothing short of breathtaking in “Broadway Baby.” She may have had the evening’s second most gorgeous voice after Philip Quast’s. It’s a shame she felt she had to make some minor alterations to the music as written — although, to be fair, that was the case for almost everybody else. But it’s a much bigger shame we don’t get to see her doing musicals more often. The world is all the poorer for it.

Meg Johnson was excellent leading the company in “Who’s That Woman?” Again, they left most of the dancing to the young ’uns, who were quite excellent mostly.

Kim Criswell’s “I’m Still Here” was so enthusiastically received I thought the applause would never end. Deservedly so.

After the interval, the performance started with a superb staging of the “Bolero d’Amore” starting with a somewhat young Vincent dancing with a young partner before swapping her for the older Angela Rippon (Vanessa), who danced magnificently with him.

Another wonderful scene took place when operatic legend Josephine Barstow came to sing “One More Kiss” with her younger counterpart.

The only thing that annoyed me was the very un-theatrical ending of this version, with everybody staying on stage singing a reprise of “Waiting For the Girls Upstairs” instead of giving the play a proper denouement. They could have done all the reprises they wanted after that.

But that’s only a minor quibble. The evening was fantastic and I hope there will be yet another one as exciting ten years from now.

“Company”

Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York • 2 December 2006 • 2pm

Book by George Furth. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Directed by John Doyle. With Raúl Esparza (Robert), Barbara Walsh (Joanne),…

Company may be one my favourite scores ever and, in my book, to deprive it of its original Jonathan Tunick charts amounts to high treason. And indeed I sorely missed the original sound during the title song or during “What Would We Do Without You?”

John Doyle continues to explore his concept of a musical without musicians, in which the music is played by the actors themselves. A concept he developed in order to be able to produce musicals in the small English theatre for which he is (or was?) the artistic director. A concept that, in my mind, has no justification whatsoever in a larger, more traditional space.

It worked to some degree with Sweeney Todd, which I enjoyed in London at the intimate Trafalgar Studios… but hated when it transfered to Broadway, in spite of the talent involved. Doyle’s concept then did a lot of harm to Mack & Mabel, in a UK touring production that played the West End.

And now, Company. And it didn’t work for me, in spite of Raúl Esparza and Barbara Walsh, who both give brilliant performances. I’ve been a fan of Esparza ever since I saw him in tick, tick… BOOM! at the tiny Jane Street Theatre. He doesn’t have a very strong voice, but he manages to cheat pretty nicely with it. And what an actor! He did wonders with the character of Bobby. As for Barbara Walsh, well, it was a pity there was no space for applause after “The Ladies Who Lunch” because she would have got quite an ovation — and deservedly.

The staging didn’t do much for me. Too many people walking around all the time. London’s Donmar Warehouse did it better and in a much more convincing way ten years ago. And at least the actors didn’t have to carry musical instruments around.

John Doyle redeems himself by ending the show on a great idea, the sort of stuff that to me symbolises the magic of theatre… a simple and poetic idea that reduced me to tears instantly. And for that, at least, I am grateful.

“Follies”

Royal & Derngate (Royal Theatre), Northampton (UK) • 4 November 2006 • 7:45pm

Music & lyrics: Stephen Sondheim. Book: James Goldman.
Director: Laurie Sansom. Musical Director: Jonathan Gill. Choreographer: Nick Winston. With Louise Plowright (Phyllis), Julian Forsyth (Ben), Jan Hartley (Sally), Alex Giannini (Buddy), …

The Royal & Derngate has chosen to stage Follies to celebrate its reopening after a thorough refurbishment. The Royal Theatre and the Derngate Auditorium are now linked by a spacious and well-designed lobby, and both auditoria have been completely renovated. The Royal Theatre is spectacular: a gem of a Victorian theatre restored to its original glory.

I have seen several productions of Follies over the years, and each of them seemed to bring fresh ideas to the show. The much-publicised characteristic of this production is the use of local amateur performers for the string of secondary roles, which works really well. The real strong point of this version, however, is a strong directorial work on how the ghosts of the past should interact with their older selves. There’s even an extra character: Young Dimitri Weissman!

The quartet of leading performers is outstanding. I was most impressed by Louise Plowright’s Phyllis and by Julian Forsyth’s Ben. “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” and “Live, Laugh, Love” were absolutely remarkable. Too bad the choreographer decided that Phyllis should be replaced by her younger self for most of the song’s dance section. I thought Sally and Buddy were very good, too… except that Jan Hartley added a most unbecoming high note at the end of “Losing My Mind.”

As for the music, well, the trumpet player took a long time to warm up, which resulted in a somewhat disappointing orchestral performance at the beginning of the show. But things got better after a while.