AISLE SAY New York

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed and Conceived by James Lapine
Starring Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat and Barbara Cook
Roundabout Theatre at Studio 54

Reviewed by David Spencer

As with every Sondheim revue since (but not including) the still-indelible Side by Side by Sondheim of 1977—and notwithstanding some of the one-or-two shot concert tributes—Sondheim on Sondheim has a certain Diet/Lite feel to it, in part because there’s a certain edge taken off certain of his songs when they’re not performed in full dramatic context (and we all know—right?—how much the maestro’s work depends upon context for maximum impact); and in part because the cast, by and large, is a well-tuned, seasoned and audience-friendly group, who might be the ensemble for any revue honoring any musical theatre master(s), but not a convening of players with an alchemical relationship to the material that renders their interpretations iconic. There are few star performers more "all-purpose" than Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat. And even Ms. Barbara Cook, dandy though she is—astonishingly so, sharing Sondheim’s current age of 80—is clearly functioning more as a concert/cabaret performer than an actress, which is entirely appropriate and yet contributes to the milk-chocolate smoothness. And one must pause to wonder at the safe, sanitized feel, given that the show's conceiver-director is frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, who usually has plenty edge of his own. Nonetheless, as always, Sondheim's material is so good and so engaging that even performed "generically" it cannot but delight. (There is also onboard a gifted and protean supporting ensemble: Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Erin Mackey, Euan Morton, and Matthew Scott.)

                        What gives this evening a nearly singular advantage over the other compilations, though—and what gives the show its title—is the way the songs are interspersed with video interviews of Sondheim (some vintage archive clips, but a majority made especially for this show) discussing his life and work, with a candor those who don't know his personal/professional history, or his persona, as bracing. And those to whom Sondheim may (in a sense or in reality) be so well-known as to be "Steve" will at least find the clips amusing. (I say this evening has a "nearly" singular advantage because in a limited-run Carnegie Hall concert of 2004, Opening Doors, devised and directed by Side by Side by Sondheim original cast performer David Kernan, the quite different program of songs were similarly punctuated by Sondheim voice-over recollections and observations, to a background of projections. Though the content of these voice-overs was different too, it's hard to imagine that Opening Doors didn't inspire emulation Sondheim on Sondheim.)

                        Lest any of this sound like damning with faint praise, let me re-emphasize, you'd be in a frosty mood indeed not to allow Sondheim on Sondheim's smoothly executed charms put you in a feelgood mood.

                        Even though, with this being a Sondheim evening, one might prefer to have felt exhilarated...

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