Lyric’s ‘Sondheim on Sondheim’ An Intimate Portrait (4.5 Stars)

‘Sondheim on Sondheim’ - Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Conceived by James Lapine. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA, through February 21.

 

No Stephen Sondheim fan living in Boston should miss this show, a fascinating look at the life and creative process of the man who is said to be the “greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater” (Frank Rich, The New York Times). With an energetic cast performing Sondheim’s well-known and lesser known pieces, and monologues starring Sondheim himself projected onto three different screens, Sondheim on Sondheim is an entertaining and informative glimpse into the life of a creative musical genius.

 

Stephen Sondheim grew up as an only child on the Upper West Side of New York, later moving to Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  His father left his mother for another woman when Stephen was ten, and his mother never got over it.  She took all of her bitterness out on her son.  A social climber, she befriended Oscar Hammerstein and his family, who took in the young boy regularly.  Sondheim claimed it was Oscar’s career as a composer that got him on the same path – he adored Hammerstein, and if Hammerstein had been a geologist, he would have been one, too.  Luckily this wasn’t the case.

 

Punctuating Sondheim’s narrative is a talented cast, who sing and dance their way through familiar (and some unfamiliar) songs. The show opens with a number called “I’ll Meet You At the Donut”.  Ever hear of it? Probably not, as it’s from By George, Sondheim’s first musical that he wrote at boarding school. Not one, but three opening numbers are performed from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – it took that many tries to get the opener right. Several songs are sung that were cut from Company, both of them involving alternate endings.  And the personable Leigh Barrett and cast are hilarious in a number from Gypsy called “Smile, Girls” sung only once by Ethel Merman in the original production before it was cut.  See what I mean?  This is good stuff!

 

David Towlun’s set, with three screens designed to look like Broadway marquees, is the perfect backdrop for the subject matter, and allows the cast ample room for song and dance.  “Ah, But Underneath”, written for solely for London cast member Diana Rigg, playing Phyllis in Follies, is performed as a slow striptease by the dulcet-voiced Aimee Doherty.  A medley of “Losing My Mind” and “Not a Day Goes By”, achingly sung by Doherty and Barrett, is gorgeous.  Maritza Bostic, Sam Simahk and Patrick Varner bring youthful energy and tension to the one song that Sondheim calls autobiographical: “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along.

 

Director Spiro Veloudos keeps things going at a nice clip, but at two hours and forty minutes, it’s a long show.  With all due respect to an excellent cast, the real star of the show is Stephen Sondheim, whose lonely, articulate presence haunts and compels. I won’t tell you which musical he wrote is closest to his heart – let’s just say it’s my favorite, too – so you will have to go see and find out for yourself.  You won’t regret it. For more info, go to: http://www.lyricstage.com/productions/production.cfm?ID=98