The concept has been used in many a revue: Strong singers explore a theater composer’s work, accompanied by live musicians (if the actors and audience are lucky), with some costume changes to vary the visuals and maybe a bit of biography thrown in for context.
Sondheim on Sondheim, the glorious new Actors’ Playhouse production at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables, has all of those elements — and so much more.
Staged on Broadway in 2010 by James Lapine, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s collaborator on Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods and Passion, the show is (as director David Arisco points out) an amalgam of theater, concert and documentary. Projected footage of Sondheim, vintage and recent, alternates with numbers from 19 of his shows, beginning with his 1946 schoolboy effort By George and ending with 2008’s Road Show.
This multimedia approach, which lets the man many consider the greatest theater composer since Broadway’s Golden Age share his observations with the audience, is what sets Sondheim on Sondheim apart from such earlier revues as Side by Side by Sondheim and Putting It Together.
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The Actors’ Playhouse production coalesces into an extraordinary whole thanks to Arisco, his design team, musical director David Nagy at the helm of a seven-piece onstage orchestra and the eight deeply talented actor-singers who bring Sondheim’s intricate, varied body of work to life.
The cast, filled with Carbonell Award winners, nominees and young talents, serves up what amounts to a highlight reel of Sondheim songs. Together and separately, Lourelene Snedeker, Wayne LeGette, Margot Moreland, Lindsey Corey, Christopher A. Kent, Don Juan Seward II, Marilyn Caserta and Alexander Zenoz make exquisitely beautiful music. They also look beautiful doing it, thanks to Ellis Tillman’s stylish, flattering contemporary costumes.
Working on Tim Bennett’s multi-level set with its giant versions of Sondheim sheet music, the performers deliver dozens of songs, many famous and beloved, others cut from shows before opening night.
The cast sings all three opening numbers to 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, ending with the eventual winner Comedy Tonight. Something’s Coming from 1957’s West Side Story (lyrics by a young Sondheim, music by Leonard Bernstein), gets a jazzy Manhattan Transfer-like performance from Kent, Caserta, Corey and Zenoz. The Gun Song from 1990’s Assassins is chilling and, thanks to Moreland’s turn as would-be Gerald Ford assassin Sara Jane Moore, comedic.
Each actor also gets chances to shine in solo or lead vocals. After a montage of disparate YouTube clips of stars and civilians singing snippets of Send in the Clowns from 1973’s A Little Night Music, Snedeker delivers a beautifully rueful version of the song. Moreland, whose honeyed voice has never sounded better, sings an emotionally devastating Losing My Mind from 1971’s Follies, followed by Snedeker’s anguished Not a Day Goes By from 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along, then the two are cleverly blended.
LeGette is particularly memorable as he sings a fierce Epiphany from 1979’s Sweeney Todd and that ode to the creative process, Finishing the Hat from 1984’s Sunday in the Park With George. Seward turns Being Alive from 1970’s Company into a powerful prayer. Caserta delivers a crystalline, joyous version of the title song of 1965’s Do I Hear a Waltz?, only to comically recoil as the videotaped Sondheim dismisses the show as “unnecessary.”
Zenoz, Kent and Corey are appealing and in fine voice as the plucky young talents of Sondheim’s most autobiographical show, Merrily We Roll Along. And Corey gets to take it (almost) all off in her saucy rendition of Ah, But Underneath, a song added to the 1987 London version of Follies.
As for Sondheim, the man whose work has meant so much to so many, he is by turns charming, eccentric, witty, opinionated and revealing. A story about potty-mouthed Ethel Merman’s appearance on the devout Loretta Young’s TV show is vulgar and hilarious. Another, about the cruel note Sondheim’s emotionally abusive mother sent him before going into surgery, elicits horrified gasps from the audience.
At some two and a half hours, Sondheim on Sondheim is going to resonate most deeply with theater geeks who worship at the church of Sondheim (tongue-in-cheek, the show references a 1994 New York Magazine article titled “Is Stephen Sondheim God?”). But the Actors’ Playhouse production makes the reason for all that admiration perfectly understandable — and abundantly enjoyable.
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If You Go
What: ‘Sondheim on Sondheim.’
Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee 2 p.m. March 23), through April 3.
Cost: $59 Friday-Saturday, $52 other performances (10 percent senior discount, $15 student rush tickets, excludes Saturday-Sunday).
Information: 305-444-9293 or www.actorsplayhouse.org.