Chicago Theater Review: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM (Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 14, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

BEING ALIVE—AND SONDHEIM

Way overdue and instantly invaluable, Porchlight Music Theatre’s Sondheim on Sondheim delivers the inside look on Broadway’s brightest. Rich with new arrangements for old favorites and the stories behind the songs, this multi-layered revue, a Chicago premiere, employs video, projections and a flawless eight-member ensemble to present lyricist/composer Stephen Sondheim from the inside out. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set—a spiral stairway that serves as several screens and recreates Sondheim’s studio littered with discarded song sheets—is as intimate as the revelations to follow.

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM (Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago)

We feel as much as grasp the hard-won highlights of a half century of undiluted inspiration—all despite the master’s approach/avoidance to a world that’s given him far more fame than affection (he only “came out” to a longtime lover when he was 60). But far worse than late-blooming passion (so powerful in, of course, Passion) is late-learned hate: In a typically telling video confession Sondheim says that, just before undergoing open-heart surgery, his mother wrote the now-successful composer to convey her one regret in life–that he was born.

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM (Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago)

Fortunately for Broadway, where Sondheim is the last legend left standing, audiences disagree. Her specious statement belies a Broadway oeuvre that runs every gamut, spanning the intimate, ¾-time heartbreak of A Little Night Music, the caustic but compassionate screed on marriage called Company, the misanthropic depths of Sweeney Todd, the unimprovable lyrics of West Side Story and Gypsy, the comic dexterity of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the showbiz wisdom of Follies—where do you start and how do you stop?

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM (Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago)

An entire career is here—from tentative first efforts (Evening Primrose, Saturday Night) of a young hopeful deeply influenced by his true mentor and dad, the great Oscar Hammerstein II, to the latest offering (the ill-fated Bounce, then retitled Road Show). Here we hear all three proposed opening numbers for Forum, with “Comedy Tonight” finally sounding the right promissory notes for bawdy burlesque, as well as the three suggested endings for Company, with “Being Alive” (fervently done by Stephen Rader) succeeding in conveying survivor gratitude rather than cynical detachment.

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM (Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago)

Sondheim gladly gives away songwriting secrets—how a situation’s specifics give a musical number roots and relevance, the need to keep lyrics simple so they sink in deeper, how this only child finds solace in collaborators (Jule Styne, James Lapine, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein) who create their own showbiz “family,” how happy he is to get lost in the process (“Finishing the Hat”), and how his supposedly neurotic characters (“You Could Drive a Person Crazy”) are non-negotiably human in their hurts and hopes (“Something Just Broke”).

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM (Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago)

Punctuating the taped confessionals and vintage projections from Sondheim’s photo albums are treasures from the trove—Rebecca Finnegan’s heartbreak in “Children Will Listen” (the childless composer’s ode to teaching), Emily Berman’s rehabilitation of the title number from the justified flop “Do I Hear A Waltz?,” James Earl Jones II’s lethal “Epiphany” as the demon barber, Yando Lopez abandoning all in “Losing My Mind,” the duet from Road Show, and the cumulative impact of the ensemble memory anthems “Old Friends,” “Waiting for the Girls,” and his sole autobiographical number, “Opening Doors.”

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM (Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago)

Even if Sondheim’s standards aren’t effortlessly hummable, except for his one huge hit “Send in the Clowns” (here seen sung by every star in the constellations), they had to happen: As Bernstein said about Beethoven, Sondheim’s songs create and confess their own endemic inevitability. They define him as they describe us. They are our constant “Weekend in the Country”—or, its opposite, a trek Into The Woods. Or just plain “Sunday In The World with Stephen.” In any case, an early, almost forgotten ballad says it all: “Take Me to the World.”

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM (Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago)Lovingly shaped by director Nick Bowling, more than two dozen delights in this 140-minute discovery reconfirm S.S.’s once and future legacy, even a wry new number “God” that wittily salutes the idolatry of Sondheim worshippers everywhere. I’m tempted to mention every selection, if only to sufficiently praise Emily Berman, Rebecca Finnegan, Amelia Hefferon, James Earl Jones II, Matthew Keffer, Yando Lopez, Stephen Rader, and Adrienne Walker—and, most notably, music director/pianist/participant Austin Cook. Of course, they’re terrific–they’re singing Sondheim: How could anyone go wrong?

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM (Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago)

photos by Brandon Dahlquist

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM (Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago)Sondheim on Sondheim
Porchlight Music Theatre
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave
Thurs at 7:30 (except 3/12 at 1:00);
Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on March 15, 2015
for tickets, call 773.777.9884
or visit www.porchlightmusictheatre.org

for info on Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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