Simply Sondheim is a match made in musical heaven. The pedigree alone is promising. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the famed composer known as Signature Theatre’s signature, has provided fodder for numerous musical revues, including the bio-revue Sondheim on Sondheim that played Broadway several seasons back, and Side By Side By Sondheim which has been around since the 1970s and was produced at Signature in 2011.
Signature’s artistic director Eric Schaeffer and veteran musical supervisor David Loud co-conceived the revue and handed over the directorial reigns to Matthew Gardiner, Signature’s associate artistic director – an artist becoming a director/choreographer of note – who staged it brilliantly.
Returning to Signature and familiar territory is the renowned Broadway orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, who has had a long working relationship with Sondheim.
The cast assembled for Simply Sondheim is likewise notable, having performed in more than 30 Signature productions between them. The ensemble cast consists of Austin Colby, Kellee Knighten Hough, Donna Migliaccio, Paul Scanlan, Bobby Smith, and Stephanie Waters.
The unique nature of this production centers on the fact that after a two and half week run in the MAX Theater, it will never be seen again. Armed with Sondheim’s blessing and more than 30 of his finest musical numbers, Simply Sondheim unfolds with the aura of a gala event. Backed by a fabulous 15-piece orchestra lead by John Kalbfleisch, the performers took the stage, crackling with camaraderie and superb musical chops.
How can a Sondheim revue not retread old material or present yet another version of “Send in the Clowns”? Not using that particular song, for starters. Schaeffer and Loud’s concept allows for both well-known tunes, such as “Another Hundred People” (Company) and “Could I Leave You?” (Follies), with songs less traveled, at least in most revue settings of Sondheim’s output. Ensemble pieces like “Now/Soon/Later” (from A Little Night Music), and “Poems” (from Pacific Overtures), mingle with “Something Just Broke” (added for the London production of Assassins), and “The Hills of Tomorrow” (Merrily We Roll Along).
The connective tissue between the musical numbers works more often than it doesn’t, much of it centering around relationships. Early in the first act, the father-son completion song “Impossible” (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) is followed by the frightened-by-marriage patter song “Getting Married Today.” “Sorry-Grateful,” about the highs and lows of married life, is then followed by the bitter “Every Day a Little Death.” Bobby Smith and Paul Scanlan follow the section about marriage with the Japanese-flavored “Poems,” one of the more jarring juxtapositions.
What really keeps the show connected – other than Sondheim’s work – is the multi-talented and well-matched singer-actors. How great it is to see veterans Bobby Smith and Donna Migliaccio have opportunities to show their not only their effortless vocal talents but their refined acting talents. Director-choreographer Gardiner has helped Smith, Migliaccio and the rest of the cast find the little one-act play that is in nearly every one of the songs used in the revue. In fact, even though the performers wear coordinated, modern clothing (nicely assembled by designer Kathleen Geldard), many of the musical numbers work musically and dramatically as they do in their respective shows. “Now/Soon/Later,” as performed by Smith, Waters and Colby would have been at home in any production of A Little Night Music. The same goes for “Country House,” added to the score of Follies for the 1987 London production, and here performed with wit and bite by Smith and Migliaccio.
There was equal strength in the solo spots throughout Simply Sondheim. Hough excelled in her renditions of “Now You Know,” and the lyrical gem from the film REDS, “Goodbye for Now.” Colby was a charming Jack (from Into the Woods) singing to his plastic cow for “I Guess this is Goodbye.”
Into the Woods was also represented by Waters’ lovely soprano voice bringing Cinderella’s “On the Steps of the Palace” to life. Scanlan, seen in the recent Sunday in the Park with George, lent his soaring baritone to the artful “Finishing the Hat,” one of the show’s magnificent arias.
Migliaccio recreated her turn as Mrs. Nellie Lovett from Signature’s second season production of Sweeney Todd and slid right back in to the flour-caked apron. She also got to land two gold standard numbers for a seasoned leading lady and made them her own: “Could I Leave You?” and “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
And then, last but not least, there is Bobby Smith. Like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, he always makes song and dance look easy. Smith is a better singer than Astaire or Kelly, and we have him live onstage at Signature where he shines in “The Right Girl,” the heartbreaker from Follies.
Together as an ensemble, from the clever mash-up of “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Bounce” that opens the show, and the gorgeous choral anthem “The Hills of Tomorrow,” these performers elevate already choice material.
Audiences can also expect selections from Passion and Road Show – two of Sondheim’s least successful musicals – and his first complete score where music and lyrics bore his name, Saturday Night. Sondheim aficionados can debate the finer points of the individual songs or shows from whence they hail, but I am an easy mark. I just sat back and reveled in the excellent performances and utter musicianship of the orchestra.
April 2 – 19
4200 Campbell Avenue
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $29 – $89
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 703 820.9771
No scenic designer is credited in the program, but the stage is swathed in bolts of stretched cloth, on which Rob Denton’s atmospheric lighting design plays. And Kalbfleisch and his orchestra, rather than being placed offstage, rightfully share the stage with the six-person cast.
Stephen Sondheim has been very good for Signature Theatre. Conversely, Signature has been very good to Mr. Sondheim’s work. It was certainly fitting that the Tony Award-winning regional theatre with such a long history of producing Sondheim’s work would produce something special during their 25th season. Simply Sondheim works beautifully as a tribute to the composer-lyricist and as an extension of Signature’s long relationship with him.
Simply Sondheim . Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim . Co-Conceived by David Loud and Eric Schaeffer . Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Gardiner . Featuring Austin Colby, Kellee Knighten Hough, Donna Migliaccio, Paul Scanlan, Bobby Smith, and Stephanie Waters . Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick . Musical Supervision and Vocal Arrangements by David Loud . Musical Director: Jon Kalbfleisch . Costume Designer: Kathleen Geldard . Lighting Designer: Robert Denton . Sound Designer: Lane Elms . Production Stage Manager Kerry Epstein . Production Assistant Becky Reed . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jeffrey Walker.
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