IF you love Stephen Sondheim– and what self-respecting theater-goer with any taste doesn’t–get immediately over to the Lyric Stage and revel in their splendid production of SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, a treasure trove of Sondheim tunes and tales, delivered by some of our most treasured local musical theater talents.
The original production was conceived and directed on Broadway by James Lapine and finds itself very much at home in the Lyric’s intimate house under Spiro Veloudos’s loving and seasoned direction. It’s a personal and leisurely (2 hours 40 minutes) trip through Sondheim’s works and the WAY he works. First there are the songs themselves, with their unusual intervals, melodies hovering between bitter and sweet, wrapping themselves around ingenious yet simple lyrics. Eight performers sing the songs while Sondheim fleshes out their fascinating back stories. A collage of family photos and video clips, take us back in time as the master talks right to us from a triptych of screens enveloping the stage.
Sondheim cracks open his process and how it developed. He speaks painfully of the bruising relationship with a mother who out and out rejected him; he talks about finding his way through his sexuality to a partner later in life. We learn how and why he works with his collaborators (An only child, he finds camaraderie there); we learn what lyrics need to be for him, what inspires him, and how he actually writes (lying down, sipping). We find out how some of his most famous tunes (“Comedy Tonight” from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM) came into being, and how one song can make or break a show! I could go on, but you should just see and hear him for yourself.
And finally there are the live performances of these gems by a marvelous ensemble. Leigh Barrett’s SEND IN THE CLOWNS is a thing of beauty. There is no local musical theater performer who sings with such pitch perfect, golden-toned resonance, and the acting chops to effortlessly deliver every nuance of feeling and meaning as Ms. Barrett. Aimee Doherty is dynamic– funny and tender, dressed and undressed. Wow. Christopher Chew gives us more of his brilliant performance as the demon barber Sweeney Todd, and Sam Simahk dazzles in a rip-roaring tune from MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG!
Mala Bhattacharya, Maritza Bostic, Davron S. Monroe, and Patrick Varner ably round out the ensemble and bring us home to the accumulated wisdom of an artist whose best gift to us may be his full-hearted appreciation for not being perfect, but just “Being Alive.” That song, of course, from COMPANY– and you can find no better– than onstage with SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at the LYRIC right now through Feb.21!