Review: Sondheim on Sondheim Soars at Encore
Imagine you've been invited to a sophisticated party at the Manhattan apartment of the dean of American musical theater, Stephen Sondheim. In the course of the evening, guests will perform from Sondheim's rich vault of musical theater pieces that brought a new irony, maturity and depth to Broadway. And Sondheim, himself, will explain his craft, his artistic growth and his sometimes troubled life.
And it's all happening magically on Broad Street in Dexter at The Encore Theatre.
This is the set-up for Sondheim on Sondheim, a musical revue conceived by Sondheim's frequent collaborator James Lapine. A wide-range of beautiful music from the Sondheim catalog is presented by live performers while on a large screen videos show Sondheim in interviews and documentaries covering his career from his early success as a lyricist for Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne through his career as the most successful Broadway composer of recent history. Sondheim is an engaging, witty and insightful host, willing to share the "secrets" of his trade, learned at an early age from another master, Oscar Hammerstein II. He is also quietly reflective about a lingering sadness in his life.
Four men and three women arrive on stage dressed for a cocktail party. A man sits at a grand piano going through the finger movements of a piano lesson and we're off for an evening of laughs, tears and much in between, because this is a cast that understands Sondheim.
Director Daniel Cooney was a little nervous on Feb. 5 because a cast member was unable to perform, so he was a singer short. Not to worry, with the help of a few index cards, the cast members rose to the occasion and filled in the gaps. Talk about troupers!
Cast members Peter Crist, Leah Fox, Daniel A. Helmer, Kelsey Pohl, Thalia V. Schramm, Jim Walke and Adam Woolsey make a fine ensemble around music director Tyler Driskill's skilled piano accompaniment. But they also shine on their special moments, the kind of theatrical moments that are almost exclusive to Sondheim's repertoire.
Kelsey Pohl brings sass and brass to "Now You Know" and sexual energy to "Ah, But Underneath." She has a commanding voice and energy.
Jim Walke is a big guy who gets to handle the more dangerous songs. As the mad baker from Sweeney Todd, he roars through "Epiphany" and as a potential killer from Assassins he ruminates sadly and madly on the power of a gun in "The Gun Song."
Daniel A. Helmer gets the spotlight as a feuding songwriter on "Franklin Shepard, Inc." and is fierce and funny, as he is in several ensemble pieces. He takes a quieter turn on Sondheim's best reflection on art itself in "Finishing the Hat."
Adam Woolsey offers a slow, quiet reading of Sondheim's concluding statement in Company, "Being Alive." Woolsey's version is powerfully sad with just a hint of positive self discovery. Peter Crist gets the spotlight on "Is This What You Call Love," which he sings with the right note of wounded confusion.
Thalia V. Schramm and Leah Fox perform a counter rendering of sad love-maybe songs "Losing My Mind" and "Not a Day Goes By" with all the wistful weight intended.
Schramm is also excellent on two of Sondheim's most complicated songs. On "In Buddy's Eyes," her near tears performance underlines softly the song's bitter regrets. And on Sondheim's most famous song "Send in the Clowns," Schramm delivers all the poignancy of love lost that has made the song so beloved.
Cooney's staging and Driskill's musical direction make the complex blending of video and live performance flow effortlessly. The ensemble pieces are crisp and natural. The solos are well defined. And all of it keys nicely off the Sondheim videos, which are a series of revelations.
Set designer Sarah Tanner has created an eye-popping rendering on a Manhattan apartment, meticulously decorated with show biz photos, old posters and playbills, a display of game boards and bric-a-brac. The room is appropriately furnished and looks out on a city skyline. Andy Galicki handles the complex lighting design and the precise video presentation.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Sondheim on Sondheim continues Thursdays through Sundays through Feb. 21 at the Encore Theatre in Dexter. For tickets, call the Encore Theatre box office at (734)268-6200 or visit the website at www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets/