Sondheim on Sondheim

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

Stephen Sondheim on screen and the company. Photo: Michael Francis

Stephen Sondheim on screen and the company. Photo: Michael Francis

In 1994, New York magazine ran a cover story about Stephen Sondheim, which asked “Is Stephen Sondheim God?” (Not in the headline as suggested here, apparently, but in the table of contents. No matter.)

Is he God? Hell yes. In musical theatre terms the man’s a genius.

Hence the self-deprecating, comic song God, which James Lapine coaxed him to write for Sondheim on Sondheim in which he pokes fun at being worshipped and at his (ill-deserved) reputation for writing art songs without heart or melodies.

Lapine conceived and directed Sondheim on Sondheim in 2010 to celebrate the 80th birthday of the revered composer/lyricist. Originally produced on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, it combines specially recorded interviews with Sondheim and archival footage with live performances of numbers from many of his musicals, along with some songs that didn’t end up making the cut.

The show is now being staged in Sydney by independent musical theatre company Squabbalogic, whose growing reputation jumped to the next level recently with superb productions of Carrie and The Drowsy Chaperone.

No wonder expectations were high for this, their latest production.

Sondheim on Sondheim is a winning concept but it needs exceptional performers to really make it fly. Act I doesn’t quite cut it here but it comes good in Act II.

The interviews with Sondheim are a constant delight. It’s thrilling to hear him talk so articulately about why he likes to write for neurotic people, the difference between poetry and lyrics, why A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum went through three different opening numbers, along with personal things like his fraught relationship with his mother, a touching admission he would love to have had children, and the fact that he didn’t have a committed relationship until he was 60.

Sondheim tragics will know most of it already but it’s fascinating stuff. And it’s intriguing to see not just the recent interviews but others from across six decades of his life.

Debora Krizak in Ah, But Underneath written for Follies, with Dean Vince, Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson and Phillip Lowe. Photo: Michael Francis

Debora Krizak in Ah, But Underneath written for Follies, with Dean Vince, Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson and Phillip Lowe. Photo: Michael Francis

Mind you, it sets up a real challenge for the performers. Rather than being presented chronologically or show by show, Sondheim on Sondheim jumps around, choosing songs in response to the interview clip (though the segues into the musical numbers aren’t always seamless). It’s hard to invest the songs with the same emotional depth when they’re performed out of context and the show moves at such pace that it’s doubly difficult for the performers to move between characters and emotional states convincingly.

On top of that, we have heard Sondheim’s material interpreted by any number of people at the very top of their game not only in the musicals but in countless cabaret shows and charity concerts. We know how extraordinary the songs can be.

Director Jay James-Moody has assembled a strong cast – Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Monique Sallé, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – but the songs don’t always sit completely in the pocket for all of them vocally.

In Act I, they perform with great energy. The performances are solid but the songs rarely soar or touch you emotionally, while Sallé’s choreography feels over busy at times. But Act II fares better.

Monique Salle, Rob Johnson and Blake Erickson. Photo:  Michael Francis

Monique Salle, Rob Johnson and Blake Erickson in Opening Doors from Merrily We Roll Along. Photo: Michael Francis

Highlights for me include Krizak’s Smile, Girls, in which she brings just the right razzle-dazzle to a number cut from Gypsy; Opening Doors about young, would-be songwriters at the start of their career from Merrily We Roll Along performed by Erickson, Johnson and Sallé; Franklin Shepherd Inc. also from Merrily given a suitably manic performance by Johnson; Epiphany from Sweeney Todd sung by Phillip Lowe; and Children Will Listen performed by the Company.

The set by James-Moody works a treat. Suspended strings of scrunched up manuscript paper, like rejected versions of songs, create a backdrop through which we glimpse the eight-piece orchestra led by Hayden Barltrop.

On stage, there are eight square black stools and tiny tables, which are moved around in different configurations. It’s simple but effective.

The show assumes, I think, that the audience will have at least some knowledge of and love for Sondheim. For those not familiar with his musicals it’s a lot to get your head around (it runs for over two-and-a-half hours) but it certainly showcases his dazzling versatility and the extraordinary wealth of his body of work.

There were a couple of clunky moments from the band on opening night and the sound mix was a bit loud at times but overall it’s impressive musically.

Sondheim on Sondheim takes time to ignite and the songs are always as spine-tinglingly moving or poignant as they can be but there’s much to enjoy in it. For a small indie company it’s quite an achievement. I’m not sure it plays to Squabbalogic’s strengths in the way that many of their previous shows have done but it’s still worth seeing.

Sondheim on Sondheim plays at the Seymour Centre until October 18. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944

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Falsettos

Eternity Playhouse, February 11

Tamlyn Henderson, Ben Hall, Elise McCann and Margi de Ferranti. Photo: Helen White

Tamlyn Henderson, Ben Hall, Elise McCann and Margi de Ferranti. Photo: Helen White

William Finn’s Falsettos is an intelligent, witty, tender musical. However, the Darlinghurst Theatre Company production has so much stage business going on that it takes a fair amount of time before it finally hits its mark and draws you in emotionally.

With witty lyrics and a beautiful, eclectic score by Finn, who also co-wrote the book with James Lapine, the economical, sung-through show consists of two one-act musicals written a decade apart.

The first act, March of the Falsettos, which premiered in 1981, is set in New York in 1979 against the backdrop of gay liberation. The second act Falsettoland, which premiered in 1991, is set in 1981 when “something bad” – later identified as the deadly AIDS virus – was beginning to ravage the gay community. They were combined as Falsettos in 1992. Two decades on, the times may be different but Falsettos still feels relevant and moving.

It tells the story of Marvin (Tamlyn Henderson), a Jewish father who leaves his wife Trina (Katrina Retallick) and young son Jason (Anthony Garcia on opening night) for a gay man called Whizzer (Ben Hall). However, Marvin wants it all and tries to create a tight knit family with all of them living together. The tensions send Trina off to see Marvin’s shrink Mendel (Stephen Anderson) who she ends up marrying, further complicating the web of relationships.

The second act, in which Jason’s Bar Mitzvah looms, also introduces Marvin’s lesbian neighbours Dr Charlotte (Margi de Ferranti) and Cordelia (Elise McCann).

As Frank Rich so eloquently put it in his New York Times review, the show is not just about Marvin but “about all its people together, a warring modern family divided in sexuality but finally inseparable in love and death.”

As anticipated, the new Eternity Playhouse proves a lovely space for a small-scale musical. The 200-seat venue is intimate enough for the show to be performed without amplification – and therefore with just a piano. Gez Xavier Mansfield’s set has co-musical director Nigel Ubrihien sitting at a grand piano in an alcove built into the back wall of the set, which works a treat – as does Ubrihien’s sensitive accompaniment.

The rest of the set consists of large wooden, coffin-shaped boxes, which may have been chosen to help with the acoustics but make for some fairly clunky scene changing as the cast drags them around.

More problematic is the barrage of stage business from director Stephen Colyer. The first act in particular is so busy, tricksy and over-choreographed that it distracts from the songs and diminishes our emotional connection with the characters.

For the very funny opening number “Four Jews in a Room Bitching”, the actors appear in matching grey pants, white shirts and Groucho Marx-like false noses. Later there’s a blow-up doll, which feels tacky, particularly when Jason is handling it. Retallick wears a steel mesh basket on her head while singing “Trina’s Song”. Quite why she also lines up six kitchen sponges I’m not sure. (The reason for the cast carrying their scores for the opening number and briefly later when Whizzer is ill also eluded me).

For Trina’s big, show-stopping number “I’m Breaking Down” Retallick has to do a workout routine on an aerobic stepper. She still got a well-deserved, rousing response but, as in numerous other instances during the show, it felt that the choreography was competing with the song.

Even Jason’s poignant little musical interludes are accompanied by a distracting pattern of hand movements.

A moment of stillness towards the end of Act I comes as blessed relief. Marvin and Jason sit facing each other. Without moving, Henderson focuses on his son and sings the touching lullaby-like “Father to Son” and for the first time the emotion feels real.

Ben Hall, Margi de Ferranti, Elise McCann, Tamlyn Henderson, Isaac Shaw, Katrina Retallick, Stephen Anderson. Photo: Helen White

Ben Hall, Margi de Ferranti, Elise McCann, Tamlyn Henderson, Isaac Shaw, Katrina Retallick, Stephen Anderson. Photo: Helen White

The second act is a big improvement despite masks with clown noses. Instead of the matching grey and white outfits, the characters appear in colourful costumes that help define their characters and the stage business isn’t so relentless – though why, oh why, in the middle of Marvin’s beautiful love ballad “What More Can I Say”, movingly sung by Henderson to a sleeping Whizzer, does Colyer have him take a pee?

Overall, however, the second act hits its moments. The ensemble number “The Baseball Game” in which the extended family goes to watch “Jewish boys who can’t play baseball play baseball” is very funny and snappily performed. The quartet “Unlikely Lovers” is also a poignant moment, impressively sung by Henderson, Hall, De Ferranti and McCann. And even though the ending of the musical is a little sentimental, Colyer shows more restraint here and allows the material to speak for itself with touching results.

The cast works extremely hard and all have their moment. Retallick captures Trina’s zesty vim and neuroses with an exuberant performance, her renowned comic chops as sure as ever. Henderson does a good job of conveying Marvin’s arc from self-absorption to a more mature appreciation of family and love, becoming ever more engaging as the show progresses, while Anderson brings a kooky warmth to the role of Mendel.

But on opening night it was 13-year old Garcia who all but stole the show, handling Jason’s conflicted emotions superbly well for his age, singing securely and exuding an effortless ease and sense of timing on stage.

There’s no doubting Colyer’s love for the show in which he has found “inspiration, encouragement and consolation” as he writes in the theatre program. Perhaps it’s because of his passion for it that he has tried to do too much with it at times.

Sydney hasn’t seen a professional staging of Falsettos since the wonderful Sydney Theatre Company version in 1994. (The New Theatre also staged a production in 2004, which I didn’t see). Musical theatre aficiandos will therefore be excited at the chance to see it now. It is a beautiful little show and despite my reservations about this production, there’s more than enough in it that’s enjoyable to make it well worth seeing.

Falsettos plays at the Eternity Playhouse until March 16 as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Bookings: darlinghursttheatre.com