Manilla Street Productions’ Sondheim on Sondheim
Sondheim by Sondheim is not only an extremely entertaining night of musical theatre, but a fascinating glimpse into the life and working process of Stephen Sondheim. The unique structure, of live musical performances interspersed with video footage of Sondheim himself, kept the audience enthralled. The concept was created by James Lapine, and the show ran for a short time on Broadway in 2010. Reviewers at the time declared Sondheim’s commentary the highlight, which I can understand. It was fascinating to hear anecdotes from his childhood and working life, and Sondheim is an amusing, and often self-deprecating speaker. As entertaining as Sondheim’s monologues were, however, the highlight for me was still the outstanding vocal performances. The cast of 8 consisted of some well-known faces in Australian Musical Theatre, and they performed beautifully as an ensemble, individually, and in various combinations. Anton Berezin, Blake Bowden, Michael Cormick, Martin Crewes, Delia Hannah, Nancye Hayes, Lucy Maunder and Lisa-Marie Parker brought an eclectic mix of Sondheim numbers to life throughout the evening.
I found the evening quite educational, as well as entertaining. As an audience member and performer, I have had a love/hate relationship with Sondheim – some of my favourite shows are his…. And so are some of the songs I have most dreaded performing. But on Saturday night I heard many well-known songs that I hadn’t realised were Sondheim, and some rarely heard hidden treasures. I also came to a much stronger realisation of how distinctive his ‘signature style’ is. This is not always a good thing – I was surprised to hear how similar many of his songs sounded when played consecutively throughout the evening. As I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the songs selected, I did not immediately realise how well represented some shows are in this review. While there is a varied mix of songs, from the breadth of his career (including 1 written exclusively for this show), shows such as Company, Merrily We Roll Along, and Passion were very well represented. There were also songs from Follies, A Little Night Music, Assassins, Into the Woods, Saturday Night, West Side Story, Roadshow, Gypsy and Sunday in the Park With George, to name a few. Act 1 opened with a medley of songs to introduce the cast, including some gender swapping – Hello Little Boy, and Lovely sung by the opposite sex.
Some vocal highlights in Act 1 for me were Maunder’s rendition of ‘Take me to the World’, some beautiful harmonies in a quartet arrangement of ‘Something’s Coming’ by Berezin, Bowden, Parker and Maunder, and a highly amusing ‘You Could Drive a Person Crazy’ by Cormick and Hayes. A mash up of You Tube renditions of ‘Send in the Clowns’ was an unexpected counterpoint to the amazing live vocals.
Act 2 opened with the self-deprecating ‘God’, penned by Sondheim for this review. Favourites in Act 2 for me included Cormick’s ‘Being Alive’, and two powerful numbers form Assassins – ‘Something Just Broke’ and ‘The Gun Song’. The vocal performances were of a consistently high quality, with outstanding soloists, and beautiful harmonies. The only criticism to be found would be Hannah’s issues with forgetting lyrics, which unfortunately occurred in one number in each act.
One of the things that made this show so engaging, compared to some other review shows, was how well developed the characters were in each song. Each of the performers were able to embody the character within the song, even for such a short time. While they did occasionally use props, and made good use of the entire stage, even in the ‘stand and sing’ numbers, the audience could clearly understand the context of the song, based primarily on the emotion the singers projected. While the performers did not use ‘costumes’ per se’, they did make minor adjustments to suit the character, such as undoing a bow tie, removing their jacket etc.
In Act 1, all the performers started the night in evening wear, predominantly black. The gentleman in variations ranging from Tuxedo, to Velvet Jacket, to 3 Piece Suit, and the ladies in black evening wear, with lots of bling. Hayes wore an elegant black pantsuit, Maunder a strapless black sequined floor length gown, Parker a black lace dress over ivory, with an ostrich feather skirt and Hannah wore a black sequined halter neck gown. As the Act progressed, the men changed jackets ad loosened ties to suit various situations covered in the songs. In Act 2, while still in formal wear, the ladies added some colour. Hayes added a bright orange jacket to her ensemble, Parker changed to silver sequins, Hannah in an electric blue gown and Maunder in a long sleeved rose gold gown with a plunging neckline. There were also some costume changes along the way – Maunder changed into a ‘flapper’ style black fringed dress for a few numbers and Hayes into a Bronze coloured jacket. The costume choices were beautiful, and added to the ‘occasion’ of the evening, without hampering the performer’s ability to bring the character out in each song.
The orchestra consisting of the Musical Director, Kellie Dickerson on Piano, Shannon Birchall on Bass, Kalina Krusteva on Cello, Phoebe Smithies on Horn, Stuart Byrne and Glenn Taylor on Reeds, David Wisken on Synthesiser and George Vi on Violin, were extremely accomplished, providing beautiful support to the singers without drawing the audience’s attention away from the singers. They were also amusingly responsive when one of the performers pointed a gun at then during ‘The Gun Song’. The orchestra filled the centre of the stage, and there were walkways along the back of the stage, and on other side of the band. The cast made good use of the entire stage – sometime moving energetically around the space to imply movement in the story, and at other times using the space to separate the characters into couples or individuals, and balance the stage. With very little available stage, the Director, Chris Parker, gave additional life to each performance, by avoiding the static element often common in a concert style review performance. This was also assisted by creative use of projections as a backdrop for various numbers. Sometimes this was a static screen, in a range of colours appropriate to the mood of the song (other than one unfortunate bright yellow, which was terribly distracting), but also included moving animations, such as a silhouette of New York during ‘Opening Doors’ which was very effective. The lighting was not overly dramatic, primarily used to subtly enhance the mood, and to highlight soloists when several performers were on stage.
While the music was entrancing, with stunning performances from all the cast, it was the combination of live music and Sondheim’s commentary that make this show so effective. It was fascinating to hear stories of Sondheim’s experiences with his mentor and surrogate father Oscar Hammerstein, and the behind the scenes stories for many of his shows – like the various incarnations of the Act 1 closing song in Company – several of those songs performed would not have been heard for many years.
Sondheim on Sondheim was a substantial show – but it wasn’t until I reviewed my notes that I realised just how many songs were included. It didn’t feel long – every moment was entertaining. I wish I could recommend you all rush to the next performance. Sadly Saturday’s two shows were the only performances of this run, but I recommend you see it if the opportunity comes around again.