Monday, February 8, 2021

Simply Sondheim: Breaking Through

Emily Skinner and Solea Pfeiffer performing "Losing My Mind" and "Not a Day Goes By" in Simply Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre has generated more musical revues than that of any other composer or lyricist in the history of the American theatre; I’ve seen at least eight of them. Simply Sondheim, which the Signature Theatre is streaming through the end of March, is the freshest, the most spirited and perhaps the best performed. Under the direction of Matthew Gardiner (who also choreographed), it’s presumably a necessarily pared-down version of a Signature production that Arlington, Virginia audiences saw in 2015, but it’s not on Zoom – it’s enacted on the Signature’s Manhattan stage, with musical director Jon Kalbfleisch conducting a small band behind a dozen singers. Its unadorned quality, in tandem with the presence of the camera, works to showcase the singers, not one of whom is less than admirable. Sondheim is famously demanding on vocalists, and a revue setting, where the numbers have been removed from their dramatic context, places an even tougher burden on them because of the complexity of the material and the intricacy of its link to its source. You don’t need to see South Pacific to understand the meaning of “This Nearly Was Mine”; it’s self-explanatory. But “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George or “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd doesn’t stand alone, so anyone who performs it in an evening of Sondheim selections needs considerable acting skill to make sense of either of these songs for theatregoers. The knowledge of the legion of loyal Sondheim fans can only extend so far – and of course everyone in the audience isn’t likely to be an aficionado.

Conrad Ricamora’s rendition of “Finishing the Hat” and Donna Migliaccio’s rendering of “The Worst Pies” are, as it happens, among the highlights of Simply Sondheim. Both performers have made wise choices about how to focus these songs for a revue most people will look at on small screens. For the traditional vaudeville style of “The Worst Pies” – the broad, gesticular approach – Migliaccio substitutes an almost naturalistic comedy, the shifts timed with wicked precision as her Mrs. Lovett plays off a silent, responsive Bobby Smith as Sweeney. Ricamora’s reading of “Finishing the Hat” is contemplative, less about his isolation from the world of human relationships and more about his wonder at the private one he inhabits.

The song list is varied and contains more than a few surprises, like the trio that opens Sondheim’s first musical, Saturday Night (unproduced for many years), with Paul Scanlan, Nicholas McDonough and Christopher Mueller as the three young Brooklyn buddies bemoaning their unattached status; the father-son interior-monologue duet from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, “Impossible,” wittily delivered by Smith and McDonough; “Country House,” written for the London premiere of Follies, with Smith as Ben and Migliaccio as Phyllis; and the counterpoint song, “Who Could Be Blue?”/”Little White House,” that Sondheim dropped from Follies in favor of “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow”/”Love Will See Us Through. (Here it is sung, winningly, by McDonough and Katie Mariko Murray.) Tracy Lynn Olivera’s touchingly understated take on “Goodbye for Now,” the theme from the movie Reds, plucks this melancholy ballad from obscurity; I never realized before what a little beauty it is. And I could hardly believe it when Ricamora and Mueller began the exquisite “Poems” from my favorite Sondheim show, Pacific Overtures – and they perform it exquisitely.

It’s not uncommon to hear “Loving You” from Passion in a Sondheim revue, and Emily Skinner sings it with a full heart; but this revue makes it the first part of a medley from the show that also includes “Is This What You Call Love?” (sung by Norm Lewis) and “No One Has Ever Loved Me” (Awa Sol Secka) so that we get, in five or six minutes, the entire astonishing trajectory of the end of this fascinating, offbeat romance. All three of the performers are superb. David Loud and Eric Schaeffer, credited with co-conceiving the evening, achieve a parallel effect with A Little Night Music.  Early in the production Smith, Murray and McDonough sing “Now/Later/Soon,” three musical monologues that permit us to enter the thoughts of the middle-aged, smitten Fredrik, his still-virginal young bride Anne, and his befuddled seminarian son Henrik. Two-thirds of the way through the act Olivera enters as Charlotte and sings “Every Day a Little Death” with Murray, still in the role of Anne. And then the first act ends with the sextet “A Weekend in the Country,” which adds Scanlan as Charlotte’s peacock husband Carl-Magnus and Secka as Anne’s maid Petra. I admit that I can always live without “Every Day a Little Death” (that lyric!), even when it’s sung as deftly as it is here, but the overall narrative effect is worth it.

Almost all of the better-known Sondheim songs you expect to encounter justify their inclusion by the quality of the performances, like Skinner on “Losing My Mind” and Solea Pfeiffer on “Not a Day Goes By.” Skinner, Lewis and Ricamora (Lun Tha in Bartlett Sher’s revival of The King & I at Lincoln Center) are the only cast members I recognized, but two who were new to me, Bobby Smith and Tracy Lynn Olivera, knocked me out. (Smith, Scanlan and Migliaccio are the only alumni from the 2015 version.) Smith gets all the middle-aged male roles here: Fredrik from A Little Night Music, Senex from A Funny Thing, Ben Stone and Buddy Plummer from Follies. I liked him in every one, but his high point is a rendition of “The Right Girl,” Buddy’s rueful second-act number, which even includes a dance solo). He took me back to the experience of seeing Gene Nelson perform it in the 1971 Broadway production, and not just because the makers of this revue have wisely restored the original ending, which in all these years of reconstructed Follies, the 2017 National Theatre revival alone has ever returned to. As for Olivera, only the top-rank quality of all of her fellow singers prevents her from walking away with the evening. Her best moment is a tie: “Goodbye for Now” and “Getting Married Today,” the lament of the loony, terrified bride, a Sondheim perennial that she virtually overhauls by ingeniously underplaying it.

I don’t think I’m projecting when I say that you can feel the excitement of these dozen talented individuals in being able to perform after nearly a year of the theatrical shutdown inflicted by the pandemic. The second act of Simply Sondheim opens with a medley of “Something Just Broke” from Assassins and “Now You Know” from Merrily We Roll Along. I’m not crazy about either these songs or those musicals, but I won’t pretend that the combination of the international crisis and the emotional commitment of the performers doesn’t invest them with a special poignancy. However, Simply Sondheim isn’t memorable musical theatre because it’s relevant, but because it’s so damn good.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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