“God. That’s Good!” And so is Sondheim on Sondheim at The Encore
DEXTER, Mich.–Generally, I’m not a big fan of revues – stage shows that gather together the songs or dances of a single artist – but you know what I am a fan of? Documentaries about creative types.
And Sondheim on Sondheim, now being staged by Dexter’s Encore Musical Theatre, is a unique kind of hybrid (conceived by James Lapine) that doesn’t simply let Stephen Sondheim’s songs speak for themselves, but instead intersperses film clips of the man talking about his process; the evolution of his career; and his life. And this makes all the difference.
Encore’s production, directed by Dan Cooney, features 8 cast members who perform the songs (plus music director Tyler Driskill, who plays a grand piano at center stage): Peter Crist, Leah Fox, Daniel A. Helmer, Lauren Norris, Kelsey Pohl, Thalia Schramm, Jim Walke, and Adam Woolsey. Dressed by costume designer Sharon Larckey Urick in what my family calls “dressy casual” – jewel toned dresses for the women, neutral-color suits with colorful button-down shirts for the men – various configurations of performers appear on stage to perform Sondheim’s songs, usually on the heels of a video clip of Sondheim talking about his work on a particular show, or part of his personal history.
Sarah Tanner designed Encore’s Sondheim set, which – according to Cooney’s vision – aims to make you feel like you’re inside the composer’s tastefully furnished living room, with not just the aforementioned grand piano, but also an off-white couch and armchair; a curved staircase; miniature versions of New York skyscrapers (aglow from within); two large video screens; and many framed photos and posters on the walls. Tanner also takes pains to extend this apartment-illusion to the side walls, hanging additional framed images on both sides above bookshelves, and this attention to detail pays off, pulling us further into the vision for this space and imbuing it with more dimension.
Andy Galicki’s lighting design not only guides your eye, but also contributes to the emotional tone of different numbers – most notably in haunting numbers like “Epiphany” from “Sweeney Todd,” and “Something Just Broke” from “Assassins.” (Galicki also oversees the show’s projections, which were occasionally problematic during the final dress rehearsal I watched for the purposes of this review; I presume these technical glitches will be worked out by opening night.) Plus, Matthew Brennan choreographed the show with a good sense of providing context without pushing too hard (best exemplified during the “Opening Doors” number, from “Merrily We Roll Along”).
There are a few “goosebump moments” in Encore’s production, the first among them being the ensemble performing “Somethings’s Coming” (from “West Side Story”) while gathered around the piano, as if at an after-party. The gorgeous, perfectly balanced harmonies (bravo, Mr. Driskill) paired with the urgent punch of the song’s rhythms are truly breathtaking. This scene also demonstrates why the “interview footage plus live performance” recipe works well. In context, we just listened to Sondheim talking about the fact that the offer to write lyrics for “West Side Story” was an early break, but one he wasn’t sure he wanted, because he was more interested in writing music. His mentor Oscar Hammerstein told him to “take the job,” so he did; and when you listen to “Something’s Coming” immediately after, you hear how it’s this profoundly perfect marriage of music and the right words – as if a new major leaguer somehow hit it out of the park on the first pitch.
Another show-stopper was Woolsey’s take on “Being Alive,” which he performs after we hear Sondheim talk about his struggle to find the right ending for “Company.” The soaring melody gives Woolsey the chance to really open up, vocally, and the result is electrifying. Pohl gets to inject a good bit of sass and personality in “Ah, but Underneath,” and delivers a lovely rendition of “Now You Know”; and Schramm – arguably the strongest interpreter of Sondheim’s material in Encore’s bunch – shines with Fox in “The Wedding is Off,” and the solo “In Buddy’s Eyes,” and with Norris in the painfully beautiful “Not a Day Goes By.”
Sondheim emphasizes, in the show’s film clips, that he’s always prized simplicity, but vocalists would likely take issue with this assessment, given the knots they must tie themselves up in to execute word-dense songs like “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and “Opening Doors.”
Consequently, it’s probably not surprising to learn that not every performance in Encore’s two and a half hour production is pitch-perfect. But the overall quality is good, and that, paired with what you learn from Sondheim himself, seems more than enough reason to spend an evening at the theater.