Sondheim On Sondheim, Send In The Clowns If You Dare


On a dimly lit stage, Vanessa Williams stands very still and beautifully sings “Losing My Mind.” She is joined by theater veteran Barbara Cook, who brings to “Not A Day Goes By” her own unique ability to sell a song. Their voices mingle at the end of the number. There are no gimmicks, no fancy choreography, just two brilliant performers singing two of the most haunting songs ever written. As the melancholy, longing, and anger fill the theater, the audience is treated to Sondheim music at its finest.

This is the best musical moment in Sondheim On Sondheim, which is part review, part multi-media event. But truth be told, the most absorbing part of the show is listening to Sondheim himself talk about his work and his life. He is thoughtful, self-deprecating, and funny. But the end of the evening, we know him and we like him. What would his life have been had Oscar Hammerstein II not taken him under his wing? How could his mother write such a cruel note? Who knew that Sondheim’s great friend Mary Rodgers provided background for Company? And what a gift to get the lowdown on why he writes on yellow pads of exactly 32 lines each. Every time he appears on the screen, the show works.

Unfortunately, many of the numbers don’t. It’s all just too uneven. More and more as the show progresses, we become aware of the fact that many Sondheim songs work best in the context of the given musical. When you take them out, it becomes a little like watching a fish gasping on the deck of a boat; difficult, and not a little unpleasant. And putting this music in razzle dazzle production numbers just makes it worse. “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story doesn’t work; Sondheim’s info on how he came to work on the show, does. “You Could Drive A Person Crazy,” from Company, is painful to watch; “Now You Know,” from Merrily We Roll Along is refreshingly new. A word here about Erin Mackey, who drives the latter; I’m not at all familiar with her work, but this dynamic performer has a terrific voice, and wonderful stage presence. I’m looking forward to seeing this vibrant redhead in a new show very soon.

Sondheim On Sondheim is a limited run, only scheduled through June 13th. Could this be the reason that so many numbers are crammed in? The show is too long, 21/2 hours, and a lot could be trimmed with no loss. There is a reason that certain plays by great playwrights are rarely produced; how many times could you sit through Pericles? Likewise, I could live happily never again having to hear “I’ll Meet You At The Donut,” “Smile, Girls” and “Invocation/Forget War,” among others.

My companion is not someone who frequents musical theater; she recognized very few of the songs, and became bored and restless. Does this show need a warning label, “For Aficionados Only”? Adding to the problem was the fact that the theater was tremendously stuffy during the second act.

While I’m griping, the Playbill is badly put together. I want to know what the numbers being performed are, and who’s singing them, at a glance. And what’s with the whole mockery of “Send In The Clowns”? Is it embarrassing to write a tune that’s actually a hit? Yes, it’s been used and abused, but so what? I have little patience for Those In The Know smirking at what’s commercially successful, and I didn’t think the clips of bad performances on YouTube was at all entertaining.

It was fun hearing Sondheim tell the Loretta Young/Ethel Merman story. The gags work well, whether it’s Tom Wopat coming on stage singing that he’s “Lovely,” or Barbara Cook appearing in huge golden boobs. The production number staged for “Waiting For The Girls Upstairs” couldn’t be better. And the mixed media aspect keeps the show moving.

For many theater lovers, just seeing Barbara Cook perform is enough. She is a theatrical icon who brings great joy and savvy to the stage, and her entrance is greeted with wild applause. There’s a wonderful lagniappe thrown to the fans when she’s turned down for a job because “we want someone with more experience.” And personally, I would kill for the huge turquoise necklace she sports in the first act, and the even bigger metallic one in the second act.

Thanks to Ugly Betty, Vanessa Williams has become a major recognizable star. I love the fact that she’s presented simply here, in a flattering but unpretentious dress, and just left to do what she’s always done so well, perform in the theater. If you haven’t seen her movie “Dance With Me,” which (logically) spotlights her dancing skills, you should definitely add it to your list.

This is a show that could be a lot better than it is. Stephen Sondheim has contributed so much to the American Theater, but despite what’s proclaimed, he really isn’t God. Why point that up? Cut the fat, remove the turkeys, and serve us only the best. No worries; we’ll listen.

Sondheim On Sondheim
Studio 54, 254 West 54th
Through June 13th.

Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, International Association of Theatre Critics, Dance Critics Association, and National Book Critics Circle.

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