Nice is Different Than Good: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at ICT

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About 10 minutes into the ICT's production of Sondheim on Sondheim, I came to the realization that I can no longer write critiques for reviews or generic, re-prepackaged musicals any longer.

While both (at best) may prove to be entertaining, the tired re-treading of ideas already clichéd are essentially the theatrical equivalent of a Disney sing-along or straight-to-video sequel. Both offer an easy ploy to gain audience attendance based on what they already know and expect. This by its very nature renders these events as anti-theatrical museum pieces. Musicals can be theater too and I'm tired of our local institutions not treating them as such. In attending most musical-related work that is not at The Garage, The Playhouse or the Long Beach Opera, I'm just setting myself up for disappointment. This really shouldn't be the case, especially when Musical Theater West and International City Theater (ICT) both know better.

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Stephen Sondheim is perhaps the most celebrated, unique and game-changing voice to ever emerge from the American musical theater. After a time as a young man mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II (the grandfather of the genre), he started his out by writing lyrics to two of the most important musicals of all time: West Side Story and Gypsy. Shortly thereafter, he launched into a career of writing both music and lyrics to a long list of musicals that changed the form forever: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, Into The Woods and Assassins, to name a few.

"The situation's fraught. Fraughter than I thought."
Stephen Sondheim

Originally conceived by long-time collaborator James Lapine as a celebration concert for Sondheim's 80th birthday, Sondheim on Sondheim is a review of 40-something songs from the composer's canon interspersed with video footage of the man himself, giving anecdotes regarding what's being performed as well as a hint of insight into his own private life.

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While this sort of retrospective may have made sense as a birthday tribute, to the general theater-going audience, it does a great disservice to its source material. Besides creating theater music and lyrics of unique voice, style and intelligence, what sets Sondheim's musicals apart from so many of his peers is the specificity and integration of his songs into the plots of the shows they were written for. Void of enough proper context, these deeply intricate and interwoven songs come across with an impotence that is surprising. Add to this the non-committed and generalized staging and choreography of DJ Gray and the situation worsens. You know something is wrong when the most engaging parts of a theatrical performance come from pre-recorded video projections.

 "Having just the vision's no solution,
Everything depends on execution.
Putting it together, that's what counts."
Stephen Sondheim

Sondheim on Sondheim 4While I can see the good intentions in the concept behind Sondheim on Sondheim, the structure, especially in the first act, is defiantly arbitrary and weak. Songs are assembled in random; fragmental medleys, whole songs come after video mentions of shows they are not from or with no introduction at all; context is given where it isn't necessary and is missing from numbers that would greatly benefit from it. Act two seems to alleviate these issues somewhat, but ultimately the most effective moments of performance come from the songs that are played as straight forwardly as possible. These segments are few and far between. Even the tasteful and precise orchestrations from Musical Director Gerald Sternbach can't help to keep these songs afloat for the duration of an evening's worth of material.

While the performers are all talented singers and some appear to be reasonably good actors, they all seem somewhat lost in this hodgepodge of a show. Stephen Sondheim's work requires an active and borderline neurotic internalization of character and motivation, delivered with precision, specificity and flawless timing. To this point, his songs are more likely to resonate with an audience when great actors handle his material. In fact, one may argue that most iconic Sondheim performances throughout history were delivered by performers who would call themselves actors before they would singers. Ideally, his songs would be performed by those who have a mastery of both, but here the ICT puts its value on singers who act rather than actors who sing. If they had gone the other route, a more engaging production might have occurred.

"Art Isn't Easy."
Stephen Sondheim

While I understand that it is often more expensive to get the rights to book musicals and that they tend to call for larger casts than your average play, I really do wish that the ICT would take on some book musicals as opposed to sustaining the rut of reviews that they've fallen into over the past few years. What I would have given to review A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Assassins, Passion, Company or any other original musical instead of Sondheim on Sondheim. All of these plays have been successfully mounted numerous times in intimate settings and I know that International City Theater could do those musicals more justice than is given to this material.

In the meantime, give Sondheim a search on Youtube and pull up some vintage interviews. It will save you the time and money I wish I could recommend you to give to their theater. As this is the end of the 30th season at ICT, and the one musical on next year’s bill is Closer than Ever, another review of sorts, I leave their theater board and you dear reader with these words from the master himself in hopes that some more specific and inspired choices will be made down the line:

"Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new. Give us more to see..."
Stephen Sondheim

Sondheim on Sondheim runs through November 8th at International City Theater at the Center Theater in Downtown Long Beach.



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