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Theater review: Sondheim on Sondheim

“Sondheim on Sondheim” at Farmers Alley Theatre
“Sondheim on Sondheim” at Farmers Alley Theatre

Farmers Alley Theatre recently opened its production of “Sondheim on Sondheim.” WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

If there is one American musical composer and lyricist who is at present deserving of a retrospective and a closer look, it’s the late Stephen Sondheim. His work in the theatre spans more than six decades and includes nineteen shows such as “West Side Story,” and “A Little Night Music.”

Fortunately for local audiences, Farmers Alley Theatre’s current presentation of “Sondheim on Sondheim” features a carefully curated collection of Sondheim songs. Most are familiar, though there are some less-known additions, like “Take me to the World” from “Evening Primrose.”

Equally as important, this enlightened and entertaining production puts Sondheim’s personal story on stage through a multimedia review of his working connection to his music.

In the musicals themselves, the plot and character storylines hold the songs together in a cohesive whole. In the case of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” the composer’s first-person life story narrative is projected on a large screen. These informative video clips of Sondheim serve as the glue that provides a welcome introduction for most of the numbers performed.

Director Kathy Mulay’s lively presentation of the songs and narrated segments engages and holds the audience’s attention throughout this two-hour and twenty-minute show.

Mulay consistently finds ample variety in staging, pace, and tone for her versatile eight-actor ensemble, as they perform as a chorus, in groups, pairs, or alone on stage.

“Sondheim on Sondheim” at Farmers Alley Theatre
“Sondheim on Sondheim” at Farmers Alley Theatre

Early in the show the full company renders the uplifting harmonies and changes of pace in the rousing number “Comedy Tonight” from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

Later the versatile octet splits into four couples for a humorous take on the relationship of age to romantic anticipation in “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” from “Follies.”

Denene Mulay Koch and Jeremy Koch bat the lyrics of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” back and forth in a rapid-fire, ping-pong exchange that underscores a neurotic relationship depicted in “Company.”

In the brooding title role of “Sweeney Todd,” Jeremy Koch effectively delivers a disturbing and menacing performance of “Epiphany.” In doing so, he helps demonstrate the full emotional range of Sondheim’s characters.

This show grabs the audience because of the way the talented performers interact with Sondheim’s image and commentary on the screen.

After Sondheim relates the search for the perfect ending of “Company,” Aaron Pottenger, supported by the chorus, responds with a vigorous and heartfelt rendition of “Being Alive.” Pottenger leaves no doubt as to why this number was chosen to be the show’s finale.

Rowan McStay’s inviting soprano in the number “Do I Hear a Waltz” is interrupted by Sondheim’s curt statement that this piece was cut from his unhappy collaborative effort with Richard Rogers.

Some of the clips of Sondheim reveal much about his personal struggles.

The composer’s difficulties with the professional partnerships early in his career are delineated with humor and poignance by Patrick Poole and Jason Long in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” InSondheim’s words this show,” Merrily We Roll Along” was his most autobiographical musical. Meredith Mancuso provides energetic vocal and emotional support for the efforts of theaforementioned writing/composing duo in the number “Opening Doors.”

Sondheim’s description of the unhappy relationship with his mother and her cruel comments to him provide the set-up for the chorus’s beautiful rendition of “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods.”

Standouts from “Sondheim on Sondheim” include Ciarra Stroud’s interior and plaintive delivery of “Good Thing Going.” Stroud also shines in another song with love-gone-wrong implications, the frenetic “Losing My Mind” from “Follies.”

No retrospective of Sondheim’s work would be complete without what he notes is his most popular song, “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music.” Denene Mulay Koch’s crisp delivery of lyrics, and her quiet reflective interpretation of this number toward the end of the evening, connects with her attentive audience.

With songs from “Company,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” and “Anyone Can Whistle” the chorus lifts the show in a moving finale that encapsulates the depth, power, and range of the music and lyrics of this genius of American musical theatre.

A former station manager of WMUK, Gordon Bolar is now the station's theater reviewer.