Review – Sondheim on Sondheim, Studio 54

Saturday 24 April 2010

We’re still here.

And despite our involuntary extended status as Broadway babies it wasn’t the least bit difficult to observe the embargo on this show.

Sondheim on Sondheim officially opened at Studio 54 on Thursday night.

The Bellyachers  had graced it with their presence at last Sunday’s matinee but had to keep their traps shut until yesterday. Which was a relief really as we’ve been getting way behind with our posts and just when we almost catch up we ruin it all by going to see something else.It looked a pretty safe bet for the Whingers really. Like Elaine Stritch we are rather partial to a bit of Sondheim and this tribute timed for his 80th birthday year also features Barbara Cook appearing in her first Broadway show for something like 38 years (if we say “for 38 years” someone is bound to correct us). You would think that with so long to prepare she could have gotten around to learning the words instead of relying on a tele-prompt. But still…

Conceived and directed by long time Sondheim collaborator James Lapine SOS is staged on a stylish multi video screen set (almost as many TV screens as American Idiot)  showing interviews with Sondheim as we merrily roll through his back catalogue of both well-known and more obscure songs.

Sondheim proves surprisingly candid, has a rather nice bar in his house and talks us through his creative process in in a drily amusing manner. Apparently he finds alcohol helps and writes lying down. A combination that sounds as if it goes side by side (by Sondheim) rather well. The Whingers immediately warmed to the man and will try his technique, so expect greater creativity from us in future.

But the problem with this show is that – as fascinating as the interviews are and in fact one revelation proves rather shocking towards the end – they do rather get in the way of the cast performing his work. At one point a performer says “Let’s turn him off and sing the damn songs”. Indeed. Then a screen pops back on and we get another clip of Sondheim talking.

TV documentary and cabaret turn out to be uneasy bed-fellows and the editing doesn’t help: the ins and outs are sometimes very abrupt – did no-one dare ask Mr Sondheim to do re-takes?

The one moment where the use of the technology genuinely pays off is the line-by-line assembly of YouTube clips into a version of “Send In The Clowns” played badly on everything from the banjo to the trumpet.

But despite the interruptions there is much to savour. Cook is magical, the voice may not be what it used to be but like Stritch at the Carlyle she can still deliver a song with incredible subtlety. There’s a terrific supporting cast Erin Mackey, Norm Lewis who does a knockout “Being Alive”, Matthew Scott, Leslie Kritzer and Euan Morton (who played Boy George in Taboo both in London and on the Broadway) who performs a particularly enjoyable “Franklin Shepard, inc.” And there’s Tom Wopat.

But it was the extraordinary Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty’s Wilhelmina Slater) who completely stole the show. Apart from looking stunning, making a sultry first entrance in a doorway, she’s also an wonderfully accomplished performer. Phil has now decided he wants to see absolutely everything she does in future. She’s particularly impressive when she and Cook perform a “Losing My Mind”/ “Not a Day Goes By” combo which works much better than it should.

And since the Whingers (who have already been told they are getting too big for their boots here) are also suggesting all sorts of productions to producers or anyone who’ll listen in the watering holes of the Broadway they’ve decided that the rather crumbling interior of Studio 54 would make an ideal venue for a revival of Sondheim’s Follies. That’s if anyone out there is still listening.

Ovationage: 100%


Rating score 4-5 full-bodied

6 Responses to “Review – Sondheim on Sondheim, Studio 54”

  1. Mark Shenton Says:

    You’re quite right that you were destined to be corrected on Barbara Cook’s credits on The Broadway. This may indeed be her first appearance in an ensemble show since a short-lived play called ENEMIES in 1972, 38 years ago, but she’s made regular appearances with runs of her solo shows that count as (the) Broadway credits:

    There was:

    * BARBARA COOK: A CONCERT FOR THE THEATRE, which ran at the Ambassador Theatre in 1987 (and won her that year’s Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One Person Show;

    * MOSTLY SONDHEIM, which she gave for Sun/Monday eve performances when CONTACT was dark, at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 2002 (and subsequently brought to London’s Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue);


    * BARBARA COOK’S BROADWAY!, again at the Beaumont, in 2004.

  2. Kevin Daly Says:

    That’s an interesting idea re: Studio 54 for Follies. There is one kink in the plan – it’s a Roundabout owned house and they pretty much laid an egg with their revival of that show back in 2001. It played the Belasco which at the time was even more crumbling (it’s currently undergoing a massive restoration). I always nominate the Mark Hellinger for all revivals of good things. We’ll see who’s idea is more likely to come to fruition…

  3. JohnnyFox Says:

    During the evening, did Barbara Cook stand up as long as her hair ?

  4. Memphis Says:

    Wondered if you saw this item of why Arts Theatre really ended Shirley Jones early – review critics are blamed!

  5. JohnnyFox Says:

    Finally got to see it tonight. Only $68 at TKTS for a really rather good mid-Orchestra seat.

    Tom Wopat was off and replaced by what looked like not an understudy but a more permanent draft-in called Lewis Cleale who was excellent. I think he may have understudied Herbie opposite Tyne Daly in Gypsy, and sings Kenneth Gibson on her shameless recording of ‘Call Me Madam.

    Cookie was warmly received by the audience but (for your British readers) appeared to be giving an impression of Rita in Coronation Street, the woman next to me, a bright and articulate NY theatregoer volunteered at the interval she was way under-impressed by Barbara.

    I thought Vanessa The Undresser was amazing, and Norm Lewis’s Being Alive certainly blew your socks off.

    Again, for your long list of suggestions to your new Broadway producing friends, reviving Merrily We Roll Along with those two boys wouldn’t hurt.

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