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Theater review: 'Sondheim on Sondheim' at Studio 54

April 22, 2010 |  6:00 pm

Cookwilliams NEW YORK — The birthday fuss has indeed been getting out of hand. But no artist in the American theater deserves it more than Stephen Sondheim, who became an octogenarian this year and has been keeping a couple of other extraordinary eightysomethings in the limelight.
 
Last month Elaine Stritch reportedly stole the show at “Sondheim: The Birthday Concert” at Avery Fisher Hall. Now Barbara Cook brings her shimmering timelessness to “Sondheim on Sondheim,” a full-scale (if seldom full-throttle) celebration of our greatest living musical theater songwriter, which opened Thursday in a Roundabout Theatre Company production at Studio 54.
 
Conceived and directed by James Lapine, Sondheim’s collaborator on “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Into the Woods” and “Passion,” this latest salute is a peculiar hybrid, part video documentary, part elegantly mounted revue. But basically, it’s an entertainment for hard-core Sondheim fanatics who would rather hear the Ethel Merman song that was cut from “Gypsy” than the classic numbers that remain. If you’re a connoisseur of the more obscure reaches of the catalog and thrill at the prospect of getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the music by the master himself, this is the show for you.

Visually, the production is a stunner. Beowulf Boritt’s ingenious scenic design consist of moving banks of screens (Peter Flaherty was responsible for the crisp video and projections) and scrims that are lustrously set aglow by lighting designer Ken Billington. The orchestra, under the smooth music direction of David Loud, can be glimpsed in the background, a tantalizing presence that adds to the general swank.

Interestingly, the reigning diva of this operation isn’t Cook, who has the talent if not the temperament. Nor is it Vanessa Williams, an “Into the Woods” alum whose formidable glamour never eclipses the smiling camaraderie she has with the other members of this eight-person ensemble, which includes Tom Wopat, a respected musical theater veteran finally getting a Broadway turn with the genius behind “Company,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Sunday in the Park With George," to name just a few of the copious high points.

The theatrical king of these premises is incontestably Sondheim himself, who looms above the festivities as an onscreen talking head charged with filling us in on all dimensions of his superlative artistry. Now, to his credit, the great man does a commendable job of ironically puncturing all the hoopla surrounding him. But the sight of him lounging about his Manhattan home while tossing off autobiographical bons mots would seem a tad narcissistic even without the projection at one point of a New York Magazine article wondering “Is Sondheim God?”

Demigod, undoubtedly, but his exceptional body of work doesn’t really need this kind of plumping. The goods speak cleverly enough for themselves. Listening to Cook soulfully navigate “In Buddy’s Eyes” or “Send in the Clowns” is all the hagiography any composer requires.

Vintage singers, of course, have a way of drawing out Sondheim's manifold complexity. (Another super senior, Angela Lansbury, is on Broadway at the moment giving a master class demonstration in “A Little Night Music.”) Cook’s clarion voice, while not impervious to aging, has only grown more adept at tracing the filigree patterns of lyrics whose sentiments are always doubling back before continuing forward.
 
But “Sondheim on Sondheim” isn’t Cook’s show alone. And although emotion runs deepest when she’s on stage, the production’s energy soars highest when the younger cast members take over to perform a sampling of songs from “Merrily We Roll Along.”

Sondheimcast Leslie Kritzer’s knack for playing jagged personalities (she was the edgy bride in “A Catered Affair”) is put to stringent effect in “Now You Know,” a philosophical hymn to the inescapability of hard knocks. And the compulsively original Euan Morton (“Taboo”) teams up with relative newcomer Matthew Scott for a sprightly go at “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” a song revealing the cracks in a theatrical partnership from a show that just happened to mark the end of a string of Broadway collaborations between Sondheim and director-producer Harold Prince.

Sondheim says his work isn’t autobiographical, but he makes an exception for another number from “Merrily ” -- “Opening Doors,” which he says is about not only himself and Prince but also Mary Rodgers, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, “all of us in the ’50s, knocking on the doors of producers and trying to get heard.” Scott, Morton and Kritzer give the song a 21st century lift.

Some of Sondheim’s annotations shed unexpected light on his creative thinking. Who would have guessed, for instance, that he would name the stark and difficult “Assassins” as the musical that came closest to what he and book writer John Weidman set out to achieve? Or that he'd publicly regret the time he spent working with Richard Rodgers on "Do I Hear A Waltz?," although the title song performed by Erin Mackey still has a dewy freshness.   

Norm Lewis delivers a rousing rendition of “Being Alive,” which we’re told was the third stab at an ending for “Company,” an anthem that balanced the push and pull of Bobby’s relationship issues. And Wopat demonstrates precisely what Sondheim means when he says that “Epiphany” from “Sweeney Todd,” with its abrupt shifts in mood, allows you to witness “a man’s mind crack.”

But overall, there’s a little too much dead air in the production. Wopat’s interpretation of “Finishing the Hat” is surprisingly uninhabited. Williams’ handing of “Good Thing Going” carries the scent of pop banality. And neither Cook nor Wopat can find the manic-splenetic drive in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”

Maybe “Sondheim on Sondheim” simply suffers from celebratory overkill. Risky as it would be, another stab at the ill-fated “Merrily,” which closed on Broadway shortly after opening in 1981, would probably be preferable to any more congratulatory merriment.

-- Charles McNulty

follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty

Photos: Top, Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams in the Roundabout Theatre Company's "Sondheim on Sondheim." Bottom,  Williams, Tom Wopat, Matthew Scott, Erin Mackey, Cook, Euan Morton, Norm Lewis and Leslie Kritzer in a scene from the show. Credit: Richard Termine / via Associated Press

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