Los Angeles Theater Review: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM (International City Theatre in Long Beach)

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by Tony Frankel on October 24, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


Shaina Knox, Josh Wise, Jake Novak, Stephanie Fredricks in SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at ITC. Photo by Suzanne Mapes.A belated but welcome revue, Sondheim on Sondheim offers both songs and personal musings from one of Broadway’s best composer/lyricists. This inside look is rich with the stories behind the songs, new arrangements for old favorites, and a few obscure tunes. Part showcase and part documentary, this Los Angeles premiere, as with other productions, employs videos of the master himself–either prerecorded or taped from his home especially for this revue–that are filled with delicious insights and anecdotes. Turns out that Sondheim’s impromptu annotations are one of the show’s greatest assets. At International City Theatre, the six-member ensemble (pared down from eight in the 2010 Broadway outing) sounds great nailing the harmonies in David Loud’s arrangements, but they offer mixed results in over two-dozen selections, which have been curated by frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Passion). The company is led by the irreplaceable and indefatigable Gerald Sternbach on keyboard, who could have used more than three extra players to show off the meatier sound of Michael Starobin’s Broadway orchestrations.

Jake Novak and Barbara Carlton Heart in SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at ITC. Photo by Suzanne Mapes.What we get is a half century of undiluted inspiration from a Broadway oeuvre that runs every gamut: 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?

An entire career is here—from the tentative first effort (Saturday Night) of a young hopeful deeply influenced by his true mentor (and pseudo-dad), the great Oscar Hammerstein II, to the latest offering (the ill-fated Bounce, ultimately retitled Road Show). We also 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” succeeding in conveying survivor gratitude rather than cynical detachment.

Kevin McMahon, Stephanie Fredricks, Josh Wise, Jake Novak, Shaina Knox in SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at ITC. Photo by Suzanne Mapes.

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), adding how he as an only child finds solace in collaborators 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 are non-negotiably human in their hurts and hopes.

Barbara Carlton Heart, Stephanie Fredricks, Josh Wise, Kevin McMahon, Jake Novak, Shaina Knox in SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at ITC. Photo by Suzanne Mapes.Punctuating the taped confessionals and vintage projections from Sondheim’s photo albums are treasures from his trove, a few performed to perfection: Barbara Carlton Heart’s heartbreaking and wistful “Send in the Clowns” and “In Buddy’s Eyes”; Jake Novak’s astounding rendition of the tongue-twisting “Franklin Shephard, Inc.” (one of the best I have ever seen); Kevin McMahon and Carlton Heart’s surprisingly effective 2-person, male/female “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” (even as the segue from Sondheim’s thoughts on neurotic people seemed a bit obvious–but then most of this love-letter revue is a bit obvious); Stephanie Fredricks’ sinewy, sultry take on a song written for Cameron Mackintosh’s 1987 London revival of Follies, “Ah, But Underneath”; and Shaina Knox and Josh Wise doing their best work in the company’s pitch-perfect rendition of Sondheim’s one true autobiographical number, “Opening Doors.”

Barbara Carlton Heart, Kevin McMahon, Josh Wise, Stephanie Fredricks, Jake Novak, Shaina Knox in SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at ITC. Photo by Suzanne Mapes.

Whereas these character-driven numbers succeeded, others under DJ Gray’s direction floundered for motivation. Gray’s movement was more effectual (she worked as associate choreographer on the New York outing), but most other numbers surprisingly lacked personality and a sense of life experience from the actors. Had all the songs lived up to their potential, you would have had a lighthearted hit instead of a mostly lackluster cabaret. And speaking of feedback, Dave Mickey’s sound design still hadn’t found its footing a week into the run.

Jake Novak, Kevin McMahon, Stephanie Fredricks, Josh Wise in SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at ITC. Photo by Suzanne Mapes.

This revue is a bit antithetical to Sondheim, being that it’s affable, harmless, and unchallenging, but it reconfirms the legend’s once and future legacy, especially a wry new number, “God,” that wittily salutes the idolatry of Sondheim worshippers everywhere. As Bernstein said about Beethoven, Sondheim’s songs create and confess their own endemic inevitability; they define him as they describe us. What makes this evening tolerable–in addition to watching Sondheim being so ridiculously intelligent, adorable, and nerdy at the same time–is that Sondheim on Sondheim is indeed all about Sondheim.

photos by Suzanne Mapes

Sondheim on Sondheim
International City Theatre
Long Beach Performing Arts Center
300 E. Ocean Blvd. in Long Beach
Thurs – Sat at 8; Sun at 2
scheduled to end on September 14, 2014
for tickets, call (562) 436-4610 or visit ICT

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