“Sondheim on Sondheim,” a new twist on an old idea, is a fresh approach to a musical revue. Now in production at International City Theatre, this Sondheim review throws the composer/lyricist directly into the action as a giant image on a screen upstage. Footage from multiple sources – old photographs and film clips, television appearances throughout his career and best, a fairly recent, intimate, late career interview that has Sondheim talking about his life, his history, his process and the important people who shaped his career. Again and again, he credits Oscar Hammerstein II, who became a father figure for the adolescent Sondheim, with teaching him everything he needed to know about song writing.
The introspective Sondheim goes into great detail about his troubled early life and how it shaped his character and ambitions. The only child of a broken marriage with a mother who regretted his birth, he was saved emotionally by the Hammerstein family who lived nearby and had a son his age or a little younger. They more or less adopted him. So influential was Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim maintains, that if Hammerstein had been a geologist, he probably would have become a geologist.
An excellent cast of six first-rate singers (Stephanie Fredricks, Barbara Carlton Heart, Shaina Knox, Kevin McMahon, Jake Novak and Josh Wise) does justice to the fresh arrangements of David Loud, especially when the sextet goes into exquisite harmony, as in a choral rendition of “Something’s Coming from “West Side Story.” The selection of songs range from the familiar to the obscure to numbers that had been eliminated from shows and rarely performed. Sondheim looms large above the stage explaining the how and why of decisions that were made to cut songs from shows. For example, a perfectly good song like “Love is in the Air,” the original opening number from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” was discarded. It didn’t clue the audience in to the low comedy extravaganza that was to follow and wasn’t, as George Abbott said, “hummable.” So the ideal opening song, “Comedy Tonight,” was put in its place.
The cast renders song after song from the Sondheim canon with style and panache, delivering comedy (“Franklin Shepard, Inc.” from “Merrily We Roll Along” – Josh and Jake), poignancy (“In Buddy’s Eyes” from “Follies” – Barbara), powerful, high drama anger (“Epiphany” from “Sweeney Todd” – Josh) and resonant social comment (“The Gun Song” from “Assassins” – Shaina, Stephanie, Jake, Josh and Kevin). Kevin, backed by the cast, nails the passionate “Being Alive” from “Company” as does Barbara with “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music.”
A nifty bit of theatre magic comes at the end of the evening when the onscreen Stephen Sondheim (video created and designed by Peter Flaherty) accompanies the onstage cast in the lovely “Anyone Can Whistle (a song cut from “Company”) in perfect synchronization. Director/choreographer DJ Grey keeps the action moving and compliments the numbers with just the right amount of dance. Musical director Gerald Sternbach is stellar at the keyboard and gets the most out of his combo of cello (Jennifer Li), French horn (Lisa McCormick) and violin (Roman Solazinka).
“Sondheim on Sondheim” runs through November 8 at International City Theatre in Long Beach.