Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

Sondheim on Sondheim
freeFall Theatre
Review by William S. Oser | Season Schedule


(front) Kissy Simmons,Nick Lerew, Larry Alexander, Eric Brandon Davis; (back) Amy Marie Stewart, Michael Raabe, Ann Morrison, Kelly Pekar, Nick Fitzer
Photo by Steven Le Photo/freeFall Theatre
An afternoon of music by Stephen Sondheim sung by a cast led by local favorite Ann Morrison—for my tastes, it doesn't get any better than that, and the reality is every bit as wonderful as the imagining! Frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine long envisioned an evening of the master's work with the idea of shedding some light on the process. Several workshops around a concept by David Kernan produced uneven results until a full production by Roundabout Theatre Company resulted in Sondheim on Sondheim. Video commentary by Sondheim provides the illumination that drives the piece. Orchestrations are by Michael Starobin. The blueprints—musical and visual—are in place for a great evening; all that is left to provide is a superb cast of singing actors.

freeFall has fielded a cast of mostly regulars, all of whom have been very good in previous outings at the theater. Here, each and every one rises to a new level of excellence. Let's start with Ann Morrison, long a favorite of mine, and Stephen Sondheim as well. She was one of the stars of the original Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along and in one eerie moment when the current production is discussing that show, a picture of her, more than a few years younger, shows prominently in the video. It almost feels like something from Follies. Midway through act one she solos on "Now You Know," a song written for her during rehearsals of Merrily..., although in the New York version all the ladies of the cast sang it. Her current performance draws upon many years of life experience to let us feel this explosive song deep in our gut. Later she sings "Not a Day Goes By," another song she performed in Merrily..., while Kissy Simmons sings "Losing My Mind".

Kissy Simmons, playing a role that Vanessa Williams played on Broadway, gets a big chunk of the best female moments, including multiple songs from Passion. Another highlight for Ms. Simmons is "Ah, But Underneath" from the London version of Follies. Larry Alexander, always dependable in ensemble things gets a chance to show me all he is capable of. He sings one of Sondheim's greatest songs, "Being Alive," so well that for a few moments I was able to put out of my mind many other wonderful performances I have heard over the years. He is also an important presence in many ensemble numbers, especially "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," where he does a great job delineating the character singing, so crucial in Sondheim.

Eric Brandon Davis, who is Artistic Director of freeFall and often directs and creates costumes, also takes to the stage, and we can see that his other duties have deprived freeFall audiences of a major talent. One highlight of his performance is "Epiphany" from Sweeney Todd, the ferocity of his rendition leaving other legendary Sweeneys in the dust. He also leads "The Gun Song" from Assassins and the uneasy reaction from the audience was telling.

Nick Lerew shows incredible growth from two years ago when he brilliantly premiered at this theater playing a teenager in The Burnt Part Boys. I was a surprised to learn he is 26, because I thought he was age-appropriate a few years ago and playing beyond his years now. His performance of "Franklin Shepard, Inc." is superlative, showing complete trust in the song. Kelly Pekar is lovely throughout the evening, her highlight is "Take Me to the World." Nick Fitzer and Amy Marie Stewart contribute mightily in ensemble pieces, though neither has a standout moment. Michael Raabe contributes mightily as music director, leading a fine seven-piece ensemble with his usual delight for the task at hand.

Chris Crawford, so memorable as an actor in The Foreigner and My Name is Asher Lev a few years ago, keeps his performers at the top of their game here as director. Visuals are always appealing, and he moves his cast around Eric Davis' multi-level setting with purpose. The production, staged with the audience on three sides, makes expert use of theatrical space, a freeFall specialty. Kelly Pekar is credited for the costumes, which enhance he visual appeal of the cast. The original video design, which comes with the rental package, is designed by Peter Flaherty with additional video design by Eric Davis.

Sondheim on Sondheim is one of the most successful productions freeFall has done in a long time, completely true to the piece, delivered by a cast that wowed me repeatedly through the performance. It is fine for Sondheim buffs like myself who already know almost every word and for people less well-acquainted with his body of work, like the lovely people from Palm Harbor who sat with me.

freeFall Theatre Company presentsSondheim on Sondheim through April 10, 2016, at 6099 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg. For ticket and performance information, visit www.freefalltheatre.com.

The Cast (in alphabetical order):
Larry Alexander*
Eric Brandon Davis*
Nick Fitzer
Nick Lerew*^
Ann Morrison*
Kelly Pekar*^
Kissy Simmons*
Ann Marie Stewart
*=Member of Actors' Equity Association
^=Resident company member

Orchestra (in alphabetical order):
Diana Belcher: Reeds 2
Marta Bukacek: Violin/Chimes
John Chatterton: Cello/Glockenspiel
Bobby DeAngelis: Reed 1
Irving Goldberg: Bass
Thomas D. Guthrie: Keys 2
Michael Raabe: Musical Director/Piano Conductor

Director: Chris Crawford
Musical Director: Michael Raabe
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin
Arrangements: David Loud
Scenic Designer: Eric Davis
Costume Designer: Kelly Pekar
Lighting Designer: Tlaloc Lopez Watermann
Original Video Design: Peter Flaherty
Additional Video Design: Eric Davis
Technical Director: James Zervas
Production Stage Manager: Timothy Sanders*
Master Carpenter: Matt Davis
Scenic Painter: Allison Davis
Technical Assistant: Trenten Szabo


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