Review: Sondheim On Sondheim (Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre)

squabbalogicVenue: Seymour Centre (Sydney NSW), Oct 1 – 18, 2014
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Conceived and Originally Directed by: James Lapine
Director: Jay James-Moody
Cast: Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Monique Sallé, Christy Sullivan, Dean Vince
Image by Michael Francis

Theatre review
The second act of Stephen Sondheim’s musical about himself starts with the number, God. Written in 2010 for Sondheim On Sondheim, the song is obviously tongue-in-cheek, but it reflects the adoration, if not obsession, that many lovers of the genre have for him. Conceived and originally directed on Broadway by James Lapine, this biographical work juxtaposes live performance with a film composed almost entirely of Sondheim’s interview footage, old and new. We hear a little about his personal life, as well as vignettes about the origins of certain songs, but perhaps more interestingly, he provides insight into his artistic process. Interspersed with the master’s candid introspection is a cast of eight interpreting his creations, with songs from as far back as 1946 included in the programme. It feels a lot like a greatest hits compilation, except most audiences would probably only find half the selection familiar.

The show is a tribute, and tributes can involve a level of fanaticism. For musical theatre geeks, this is a gift from heaven, and for the rest of us, it is a variety show featuring magnificent singers. Director Jay James-Moody and choreographer Monique Sallé provide the cast with solid emotional and physical structures to navigate around, but focus is kept simple; we hear Sondheim speak, and we hear the cast sing his compositions. It is a challenge to prevent repetitiveness without surprise guest performers and big visual trickery, as variety shows are want to do, and on this occasion, the production does lose a little steam halfway through act two.

It is a tricky thing to perform musical theatre numbers out of context. Without a narrative, some of the more emotive sequences cannot help but feel trite and corny. At a running time of over two hours, there is a good chance that persistent levity would turn sour. Most scenes are not set up sufficiently for the songs to communicate at depth, but an exception is the segment featuring a medley from Sondheim’s 1994 work, Passion, which gives us background information for characters and circumstance, thus allowing us to connect with the tragic love story. Louise Kelly’s sensitive and powerful portrayal of the lovelorn Fosca is beautifully moving, and a reminder of the importance of story and empathy in any theatrical work.

Dynamic work by Mikey Rice on lighting design and Jessica James-Moody on sound, give the independent production a surprising polish. The set design is highly effective, although its resemblance to Brevity Theatre’s Wittenberg at the Old Fitzroy Theatre earlier this year must be noted. Costumes (uncredited) are a disappointment, with many unflattering and unimaginative pieces sabotaging an otherwise pleasant vista.

Sondheim On Sondheim can be thought of as being about heroes and vanity. We sit back and admire phenomenal work by the songwriter and turn green with envy at this excellent collection of voices. We can also think about great art as being a source of inspiration for all. The way we live our lives, and indeed the reasons for living, are infinitely diverse, but a commonality exists in our universal need for a vision of something greater. There is no doubt that greatness presides on this stage, and bearing witness to their extraordinary talent is almost necessary.