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.

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“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.