Los Angeles Theater/Music Review: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM (Hollywood Bowl)

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by Tony Frankel on July 25, 2017

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Sondheim on Sondheim, which had a short run on Broadway in 2010, offers both songs and personal musings from one of Broadway’s greatest composer/lyricists. Roundabout Theater Company’s inside look is rich with the stories behind the songs, new arrangements for old favorites, a few medleys, and some obscure tunes. Part showcase and part documentary, this pared-down version also 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. You can’t lose with a bunch of Sondheim songs, but it’s a rather insubstantial revue given the hefty nature of the subject’s compositions. Because of the show’s genial nature, Sondheim’s impromptu annotations are one of the show’s greatest assets.

But a funny thing happened at the Hollywood Bowl last Saturday night, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic unveiled a brand-new symphonic version, spearheaded by Music Theater International. Many songs from the revue have actually been cut. So, too, have some of the annotations. Michael Starobin beefed-up his original orchestrations for a lusher and fuller sound, and David Loud oversaw his own ingenious arrangements (which basically remain the same, thankfully), with some minor added frills (a vocal overture for one, a great idea which remains unexplored), but it all veered toward a POPS sound (take that for what it’s worth). Even with the great Gustavo Dudamel keeping a tight rein on this meandering ship (and adding humor by singing a line from “Broadway Baby”), the LA Phil had its strings tied due to the loss of character, which was ample in Starobin’s original orchestration for a small chamber ensemble.

Given all of that, the show remains an agreeable experience, even as this version downsizes more than enhances James Lapine’s original concept and curation (his niece, Sarna Lapine capably stages the show with Broadway-style panache.) Dudamel’s coup was adding members of YOLA, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, during “Children Will Listen” at show’s end. It was inspiring to have young folk both playing and singing to a tune that tells us to pay heed to what we pass down to our children. And right on the heels of this, came two songs that captured this fan’s idolatry with Sondheim: “Old Friends” and “Company.” This led to a stirringly poignant “Anyone Can Whistle,” which faded from the cast to a video of the great man himself softly singing about one who can easily achieve the extraordinary but lacks simplicity; this unadorned moment elucidates why scaling back—and just letting the songs and their interpreters speak for themselves—still works the best.

Thus, the evening was only as good as the last good song; results were inconsistent, but thankfully nothing was awful. The thing is, Sondheim’s songs are mini-plays, and they need to be performed as such. Some of the actors hit it out of the Bowl, but others simply lacked gravitas. My favorite was basso profundo Phillip Boykin, Tony-nominee from Porgy and Bess (sorry The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess); his growling rumbling “Epiphany” from Sweeney Todd roared through the back of my skull. Ruthie Ann Miles (Tony-winner of The King and I), a superb interpreter of lyrics,  found hidden gems in “Beautiful” and “Take Me to the World” (both Boykin and Miles were in the tryout performance of Sondheim on Sondheim with the Boston Pops at Tanglewood earlier this month).

Vanessa Williams, the one holdover from the original cast, wasn’t glorious in just “Good Thing Going,” but duets as well: her “Losing My Mind” was performed with “Not A Day Goes By,” offered by the luminous Sarah Uriarte Berry, who was heartbreaking in “Send in the Clowns” (which was preceded on video by all the stars who have covered Sondheim’s one hit). Joining Williams on the walkway behind the patrons in the Bowl’s pool section was Jonathan Groff; together, they nailed the plaintive love song, “So Many People,” from Sondheim’s first show, Saturday Night (unproduced until the ’90’s).

Matthew Morrison had just dropped out (“professional scheduling conflict”) shortly before opening, so some song reassignments may be to blame, but the men didn’t fare as well as the women. And while there wasn’t a sore toe in the bunch, Sondheim isn’t helped by insubstantial singing. Groff is incredibly likeable and pure, but he doesn’t have the angst and yearning necessary to put the emotional football “Being Alive” through the goalposts. And Jesse Tyler Ferguson, comical and equally agreeable, only partially pulled off “Franklin, Shepard, Inc.”; his presence seemed muffled, and his voice doesn’t have a point. Rounding out the cast were Lewis Cleale, Carmen Cusack, Claybourne Elder, and Solea Pfeiffer.

Any excuse to bring the wit and intelligence of the 87-year-old genius to a wider audience is greatly appreciated (Sondheim was not in attendance last night, but in London for National Theater’s new production of Follies). But condensing Sondheim is a bit like running through the Uffizi Gallery at full speed. Stephen Joshua Sondheim deserves better than a Readers Digest version of his oeuvre.

photos by Mathew Imaging/LA Phil

Sondheim on Sondheim
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
The Hollywood Bowl
played July 23, 2017
for more events, visit Hollywood Bowl

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