Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Hershey Felder, Our Great Tchaikovsky
I mean the man's a god!
Wrote the score to Sweeney Todd
With a nod
To de Sade.
Well, he's odd.
Well, he's God."
And for many in the opening night audience of Sondheim on Sondheim at the 3 Below Theatres & Lounge in San Jose (also on its own premiere night), there was little sign of disagreement with this divine proclamation as the eight-person cast outstretched their arms in hallowed awe of Stephen Sondheim, who in turn looked back at them (and us) from a large video screen. Conceived by James Lapine and running in a limited run on Broadway in 2010, Sondheim on Sondheim features not over fifty of the Great One's songs from nineteen of his shows, but the musical revue is also interspersed throughout with perfectly timed (to the second) interviews with Sondheim from various stages of his life.
The incredibly informative and entertaining video created by Peter Flaherty also contains scrapbook montages of vintage pictures and even points where Stephen Sondheim introduces or interrupts songs while interacting with the singers on stage. The mixture of live and recorded performance even includes beautifully orchestrated music by Michael Starobin that, combined with the sound design of Steven Cahill, sounds like there is a live orchestra somewhere in the theatre to support the singing cast on the stage. Add to all this a cast of eight veteran performers who bring a rich mixture of local, national touring, and Broadway credentials among them, and 3Below's Sondheim on Sondheim is both an evening for any Sondheim fanatic or neophyte to relish as well as an auspicious beginning for the refurbished opening of this new performing arts venue in San Jose.
Ticking through so many of Sondheim's most famous as well as some of his now-forgotten or even never-produced songs in a show running over two and a half hours is quite an undertaking. Some are quickly given a few sung lines on stage, but many are provided the time for a full outing, complete often with clever, understated, but effective choreography (designed by the co-producers/directors, Scott Evan Guggenheim and Shannon Guggenheim).
There is an overall smart, sophisticated feel to the evening as homage is paid to the man Frank Rich of The New York Times once called "now the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theatre." The Guggenheims have dressed the cast in similar but individually unique outfits of dark navy and black that have a feeling of some decade two or three back when many of Sondheim's musicals were written. The duo designed movable, white-cushioned sectionals that form both a big circle and many other shaped designs for interesting and easily constructed settings.
The stories that Stephen Sondheim interjects are often very personal, telling shocking stories of a mother who rejected him all the way through his adulthood as well as a father/son relationship he had with Oscar Hammerstein II, the man he accredits his becoming a songwriter. He also introduces many of the songs explaining how and when they were written and provides great anecdotes to the creationoften shakyof some of his best-known musicals. For example, the cast sings (under Sondheim's watchful and twinkling eye) the little known "Forget War" and "Love Is in the Air," both of which were to open A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a show that had difficult try-outs before getting to New York. Only after Sondheim finally wrote "Comedy Tonight" (performed with full fun and in big voice by the whole cast) did the show take off on the road toward success.
But the most important aspect of Sondheim on Sondheim has to be the delivery of the composer's songs themselves. On opening night, there was some variance among singers as to the success of their delivery, especially in the first half of act one. The biggest culprit tended to be over-singing by some of the members, especially a couple of the male singers. However, there was a shift when they seemed to settle down (and microphones quit snapping and clicking), and more numbers than not really started to work and work well.
The turning point for me came when Hayley Lovgren, Theresa Anne Swain, Martin Rojas Dietrich, and Jeremy Kreamer sang a spot-on "Something's Coming" from West Side Story. Their exquisitely timed and punctuated, close harmonies rose and fell with dynamics that sold the songall enhanced by simple, well-executed choreography and background pictures of a young Stephen as he looked when creating the lyrics for that seminal, 1961 musical. Ms. Lovgren followed in a couple of numbers leading the entire company with a voice full of confidence and snap in a rousing "Now You Know" from Merrily We Roll Along, with the cast also performing some of the snazziest choreography of the night. Also from the same musical, Jim Ambler, Jeremy Kreamer, and Susan Gundunas immediately broke into a hilarious, A+-performed "Franklin Shepard, Inc." By this point, my confidence had grown in the group's abilities to do Sondheim full justice, and the numbers kept rolling and rolling with more and more winners delighting me and my fellow audience members.
About a third of the shows numbers are performed as solos in Sondheim on Sondheim. In that regard, two cast members stood out for me on this opening night, each with very different styles and voices. Amy Bouchard time and again blew me away with an ability to let notes seemingly effortlessly flow in a stream of crystal-pure clarity and beautynumbers like "Good Thing Going" (Merrily We Roll Along), "Loving You" (Passion), and "In Buddy's Eyes" (Follies). Ms. Bouchard sings with a sense of restraint and measured control in both her voice and her facial expressions that allows the song's power to emerge and shine.
Equally impressive but for different reasons are the voice and delivery techniques employed by Susan Gundunas in "Take Me to the World" (Evening Primrose) and "I Read/Forca's Entrance" (Passion). Ms. Gundunas brings to her songs much genuine, deep-felt emotion in her voice and in her all-encompassing expressiveness. After an earlier collection of both the famous (Judy Collins, Ella, Barbra, Frank, etc.) and YouTube fifteen-minute-famers singing "Send in the Clowns," Ms. Gundunas brought tears to my eyes in singing her own version of this much-recorded standard, with a stirring chorus of cast voices joining her to echo the song's refrain.
As a total cast, there are times when nothing more could be asked than was given. The first act ends with "Sunday" (Sunday in the Park with George) that is absolutely gorgeous and well-blocked to recreate the famous picture by Georges Seurat. Active versions of "Company" (Company)), "Old Friends" (Merrily We Roll Along), and "Anyone Can Whistle" (from the show with the same name) close the evening with lots of nicely choreographed movements in all directions and with singing that is rousing and uplifting. At this performance, earlier issues of singing outside of some individuals' "beauty boxes" had been largely solved by then, leaving everyone in the audience with tapping toes and big smiles.
The opening of 3 Below, in my opinion, accomplishes everything that must have been in the co-producers' visions. My hope is that the buzz will spread and many people will flock to fill the seats of the beautifully decorated, seat-comfortable, sound-perfect theatre in order to enjoy an excellent, exciting Sondheim on Sondheim. And as they leave, my guess is that most will agree,
"The lyrics are so smart,
Sondheim on Sondheim continues through February 4, 2018, at 3 Below Theatres & Lounge, 288 South Second Street, San Jose. Tickets are available online at 3belowtheaters.com.