Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Widely considered by many to be the greatest living American musical theatre composer, Sondheim has contributed to or written the entire scores for some of the most well-regarded and beloved musicals of the 20th century. These include the lyrics for two classic musicals, West Side Story and Gypsy, and the scores for Company, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, and others.
Sondheim's frequent collaborator James Lapine directed the original Broadway production, and his idea to include archival photos, home movies, and video clips, as well as many video interview segments recorded specifically for the original 2010 Broadway production, makes the show more than just an evening of Sondheim's songs. However, while there is insight into Sondheim's life and information about how some of his songs and shows were conceived, the show is far from a complete biography. The material isn't performed in chronological order and occasionally the video segments break up the momentum of the show. Also, while some of his most well-known songs, like "Send in the Clowns," are included, as well as several that were cut or changed and ones from his flop shows, which should be a treat for Sondheim lovers, a few of his most popular shows, including Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods are barely represented.
Robert Kolby Harper's clear and concise direction adds a big shot of energy to the production and the staging of the show, with the audience seated on two facing sides of the stage, with only 125 seats in total, provides a sense of intimacy that allows the focus to be on the lyrics and the actions of the characters and performers singing the song. The cast of six are all excellent vocalists and refined actors who deliver the lyrics with clarity and have no problem navigating their way around some of Sondheim's more intricate songs.
With so many songs presented, and a practically perfect cast, there are many highlights. Amy Jo Halliday has some of the best material to perform and her soulful, introspective delivery of Sondheim's lyrics adds deep emotion to his biggest hit, "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music, as well as in a beautifully moving duet with Jonathan Hoover, "Beautiful" from Sunday in the Park with George. Halliday and Merissa Haddad also provide a clear connection to the lyrics in a well-crafted arrangement of two of Sondheim's ballads, "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along and "Losing My Mind" from Follies. The deep longing, regret, pain and suffering that Sondheim is able to achieve in his lyrics are expressively stated in these performances. Hoover also delivers a soaring version of "Being Alive" from Company, a humorous take on the cut song "Smile, Girls" from Gypsy, in which he perfectly mimics Patti LuPone (who starred in the most recent Broadway revival of that show), and a biting delivery of "Is This What You Call Love?" from Passion.
Rusty Ferracane's passionate and introspective take on "Epiphany" from Sweeney Todd shows why he is one of the best actors in the Phoenix area. Brandon Brown perfectly finds the drama within the humor of the comically rich "Franklin Shepard, Inc." from Merrily We Roll Along as well as a gorgeously sung "Multitudes of Amys," a cut song from Company. Haddad has fun with "Ah, But Underneath" from Follies and another cut song from Company, "The Wedding Is Off," while Kathlynn Rodin's soaring soprano shimmers on the title song from Do I Hear a Waltz?. Hoover, Brown and Rodin also shine in Harper's perfectly staged "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along.
The creative aspects for this production are beautifully presented, with Tiana Torrilhon-Wood's smart scenic design, Sara Lindsey's elegant costumes, and Nathaniel White's evocative lighting adding a richness to the Judith Hardes theatre space. Musical director Alan Ruch and conductor Steve Hilderbrand derive gorgeous sounds and notes from the band and cast, which are heard crystal clear through Ryan Peavey's sound design.
With smart direction that makes effective use of the various playing spaces, and exceptional performances from the cast, plus the added bonus of having Sondheim as a part of the show, The Phoenix Theatre Company's Sondheim on Sondheim is a unique way to get to know the man behind the music while experiencing dozens of his songs.
Sondheim on Sondheim runs through April 12, 2020, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix. For tickets and information, please visit phoenixtheatre.com or call 602-254-2151.
Director / Musical Staging: Robert Kolby Harper
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S