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‘Sondheim on Sondheim’ at Porchlight: In song and anecdote, a portrait of the artist as wizard

Submitted by on Feb 18, 2015 – 12:00 pm

In 'Something's Coming,' Austin Cook accompanies Emily Berman, Matthew Keffer, Amelia Hefferon and Yando Lopez. (Brandon Dahlquist)Review: “Sondheim on Sondheim,” conceived by David Kernan, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, filmed commentary by Sondheim, produced by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773 through March 15. ★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

I came away from “Sondheim on Sondheim,” produced by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, laughing out loud as I mentally replayed the many video snippets of Stephen Sondheim talking about his life and art, setups for this musical revue of his stage works offered by an immensely talented pianist and an able vocal cast of eight.

Pianist Austin Cook accompanies Rebecca Finnegan's performance of 'In Buddy's Eyes.' (Brandon Dahlquist)What a treat, just to watch the old master – in projections on screens above the stage – reminisce about his roots, his boyhood with a mother who viewed him as an imposition, his absolute devotion to his alter-father Oscar Hammerstein and the making of great Sondheim musicals like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Company,” “Follies,” “Gypsy,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and “A Little Night Music.”

The live musical component of the show, which opened on Broadway in 2010, is both ambitious in scope and vocally demanding. Porchlight’s vocal presentation comes off as spirited, engaging and capable, but also uneven. The real star is music director and pianist Austin Cook, a technically masterful and imaginative musician who provides more than accompaniment: He lends this show a poetic soul worthy of that singular composer and lyricist up on the screen.

James Earl Jones II and Stephen Rader are 'Waiting for the Girls Upstairs.' (Brandon Dahlquist)The layout of “Sondheim on Sondheim” as a revue offers an appealing mix of ensemble jewels – the raucous wit of “Comedy Tonight” from “Forum,” the wry spin of “A Weekend in the Country” from “A Little Night Music” – and more intimate songs. In the performance I heard, singers Rebecca Finnegan and James Earl Jones II provided the brightest individual moments and Emily Berman brought a constant warmth to ensemble numbers.

Thanks to the adroit work of director Nick Bowling and choreographer Emily Ariel Rodgers, the eight singers – rounded out by Amelia Hefferon, Matthew Keffer, Yando Lopez, Stephen Rader and Adrienne Walker – negotiated the modest stage with an energy that never compromised grace.

Designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s two-level set further relieves congestion while literally adding another dimension to this biographical revue. Bowling uses the upper level selectively, so that when suddenly actors appear on high the whole show seems to take a reinvigorating breath. The stage layout is otherwise uncomplicated, or more to the point unencumbered, with the grand piano occupying the central anchor position, a marvelous wellspring of music, esprit and animation.

The performance I heard offered a night of good singing that generally stopped short of the next level. There was much to savor in Finnegan’s softly caressed account of “In Buddy’s Eyes” from “Follies.” And from the same show, Jones and Rader caught the happily filtered memory of “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs.” Still, on a night of solid singing, one waited in vain to experience the real brilliance, or depth, of Sondheim’s music. Finnegan and Jones offered a turn through “Send in the Clowns” that, for all its tenderness, did not touch the heart-stopping poignancy of one of Sondheim’s most profound songs.

Matthew Keffer and Adrienne Walker in the duet 'Happiness.' (Brandon Dahlquist)Not every number recalls a hit show, but with a couple of youthful exceptions, every song bespeaks the distinctive art of the pen behind it. A prime example is “Happiness,” from the musical “Passion,” which Walker and Keffer turned into a beguiling reflection on that most elusive of human conditions.

For sheer delight and charm, nothing beat “Opening Doors” (from “Merrily We Roll Along”), in which pianist Cook and Lopez played an eager, struggling young song-writing team opposite Hefferon’s likewise hustling young novelist, all trying to get their toe in the game. Also from “Merrily,” and funnier than “Comedy Tonight,” was the duo of Jones and Rader as composer and wordsmith in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” a TV appearance by this creative team during which the word guy unleashes his pent-up pique about how it’s the composer’s world and he just works in it.

Along the way, Sondheim’s filmed ruminations embroidered the songs while providing a generous free-form narrative. Great stuff – candid, dryly self-deprecating, resonant of the joy life has brought him. It was very much Sondheim’s turn.

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