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The Subject Steve

Sondheim on Sondheim takes awhile to get rolling. But Barbara Cook is worth the wait.

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Have you ever been to an office retirement bash, one of those extravaganzas set up for a company’s beloved founder? I’m thinking of those events where employees and family make up a video full of skits and inside jokes and nifty old photos. It’s usually lots of sweet-tempered fun for everyone involved, though if you’re a new employee or a visitor, it grows a touch old, a touch too soon. Well, blow that event up to Broadway scale, and you get Sondheim on Sondheim, a celebration of the musical theater’s greatest composer and lyricist. It’s a light revue assembled by his longtime collaborator James Lapine, one in which the composer himself introduces most of the songs, VH1 Storytellers style, in onscreen snippets projected behind the performers. If you are even slightly inclined toward Sondheimianism, you will find yourself comfy and cozy here, but you won’t be challenged much either. If you’re a hater, you will likely find yourself only partway persuaded of his greatness. And if you’re really deep into the cult, you’ve heard all the anecdotes before—but I doubt that you’ll mind one more go-around.

Strangely, the show puts its weakest foot forward at the top of the first act. Sondheim’s talkier songs don’t lend themselves so well to medleys, and snapping bits of “A Weekend in the Country” together with the prologue from Into the Woods and a dark slice of Sweeney Todd is just plain jarring. Other songs cut off after a verse or two, just when we’re starting to ease into their rhythms and let the complex lyrics develop. The new arrangements for several songs, like “Something’s Coming,” are anemic, too, though to be fair there’s only so much you can get out of a small-budget orchestra of nine players.

But as the evening proceeds, the songs get to breathe at their full length, and a lot of them fill out beautifully. Euan Morton (whom you may remember from Taboo) is the one who really wakes the place up, furiously pacing the set during the maddening-to-sing “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” from Merrily We Roll Along, the show whose poor reception in 1981 almost caused Sondheim to quit Broadway. (And by the way, would someone wise up and revive Merrily already? It deserves the great production it’s never had.) There’s also one flat-out hilarious video montage: a collection of “Send in the Clowns” performances, assembled from YouTube, that proceed from the sublime well past the ridiculous into the completely insane. Not every big showstopping number is perfect—Vanessa Williams emotes too much with her shoulders and eyebrows, and Tom Wopat flubbed a couple of lines the night I was there—but nobody’s actually bad, and the supporting performers (especially Morton and an extremely winning newcomer named Erin Mackey) are excellent.

Which brings us to the 82-year-old Barbara Cook. Her voice sounds a little thin sometimes at the bottom of her range; she periodically takes the arm of another cast member as she heads on- or offstage. But her performance is a study in doing more with less, substituting emotion and interpretation for pure vocal power. It’s surely no accident that her two big moments in this revue are songs that are at least partly about getting older and looking back: “In Buddy’s Eyes” and, of course, “Send in the Clowns.” The latter, especially, is just about perfect, and as Cook cast her spell over the room, it got me thinking about the endgame for Sondheim himself, who turned 80 in March. His most recent musical, Road Show, had an extremely difficult birth and was received respectfully but not enthusiastically. He claims to have at least one more musical in him, and one hopes that this pseudo–retirement party isn’t the real thing.


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