Musings of the man on his music
By Bradley Storer
With Sondheim on Sondheim, Manilla Street Productions assembles a star-studded cast to perform a revue of Broadway’s most prolific living composer, an evening of Stephen Sondheim’s music intercut with projections of the man himself with a variety of anecdotes and details relating to his life and song-writing. Among the cast were leading lady of Australian music theatre Lucy Maunder, Rob Guest, Endowment winner Blake Bowden, Martin Crewes, Delia Hannah, Michael Cormick, Lisa-Marie Parker, Anton Berezin and Australian theatre legend Nancye Hayes.
The structure of the show itself, songs and scenes from Sondheim’s oeuvre presented alongside exclusive interviews with the composer himself, is problematic – none of the songs can gain enough momentum to hold the audience before they are interrupted by snatches of interviews, and thus the flow of the evening drags. Sondheim himself is a charming and engaging presence onscreen, and hearing him speak on various topics is one of the joys of the performance. By the second act, the portions of Sondheim’s interview are more smartly dispersed alongside longer numbers which allow some much-needed momentum, leading to wonderful group songs like the self-parodying ‘God’, ‘Opening Doors’, ‘The Gun Song’ and ‘Smile Girls!, an Ethel Merman number cut from Gypsy.
The all-star cast seemed surprisingly tentative, too unsure to invest themselves in their individual numbers enough to perform a ‘star turn’ – which unfortunately is what revues such as this need to stay afloat. Maunder’s Act Two strip tease, ‘Ah, But Underneath’, was the closest the evening came to a show-stopper and allowed Maunder (who earlier delivers a touching performance of ‘Take Me to the World’) to unleash scintillating dance skills and charismatic sexuality, but was undercut by the entrance of the male ensemble and an oddly dissatisfying climax to the number. One of the greatest moments of the evening was the simplicity of watching Hayes grabbing a stool and taking centre stage to sing with heart-breaking simplicity the famous ‘Send in the Clowns’.
The orchestra, under the capable direction of Kellie Dickerson, were in great form, performing the new arrangements with great zest and skill – one mistake however was the choice of a slower tempo for the explosive ‘Franklin Shepherd Inc.’, a show-stopper that requires manic and frenetic energy to work, leaving Crewes’ valiant attempt to deliver the number underwhelming.
Sondheim on Sondheim unfortunately fails to deliver on the promise of its incredible cast and rich material, finding only moments here and there which capture the deep well of emotion and beauty within’s Sondheim work – the show itself has structuring issues which certainly don’t help the creative team and need more time and finesse to overcome.