There are those who may grouse at the remounting of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals that paved the way for J.R. Brown, Guettel and Sondheim. But “South Pacific” won’t go away, no matter the amount of hair-washing. There will continue to be corn-filled, beautiful mornings, and a tinkley tune set in 3/4 time, slowly swelling in orchestration and tempo until we remember our first carousel ride is not disappearing any time soon.
And just why might that be, you Grumpy Gusses, longing for louder percussion and more overt hurt? Is it the melding of perhaps overly romantic lyric to hummable melody? I won’t pretend that has nothing to do with the equation; we do like to leave the theater humming, Jason, and be able to recite at least a phrase or two of the lyrics, Stephen. But let’s look for just a moment at the themes of the pieces these two giants wove, subtly, into their effervescent canon, in light of the times in which they lived. They chose material that, in lesser hands, might have been considered too subversive to survive at the box office. Read the rest of this entry »
Stephen Sondheim’s long, lauded, and continuing career in the lyric theater has given opportunity for discovery as to his compositional demons, and the fire he uses to bully them into delivering meticulously melded words, married to inseparable pitch and rhythm. The combination of his music and lyrics fall on the ear as surprisingly as a secret newly whispered, and then sear immediately into memory, poetry that is exactly right; leave out one word or one pitch, and everything is lessened. The necessities for success, from start to finish, sit profoundly on the page. We have no reason to disbelieve his sharing in interview and print of the haunted, solitary process that drives him to agonize over every shred of text and melody.
In Porchlight Music Theatre’s mounting of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” there is much honor paid to the immaculate compositional construction that continues to make the piece a favorite. Musical director Doug Peck’s chorus blasts and floats the intricate harmonies and transgressive changes of meter flawlessly, racing about the stage delivering full-voiced Greek-chorus commentary while hauling furniture, adjusting flats, spinning the staircases of Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s sets, and turned out in Bill Morey’s period-perfect costumes.
But an accent coach is sorely needed to provide accents that ground us to place and time-period. Read the rest of this entry »
Danni Smith and Peter Oyloe/Photo: Adam Veness
Stephen Sondheim has both refined and blurred the sloppy genre that is our current understanding of lyric theater. With patter mimicking actual speech, the blazing speed of variance in meter and key, and the cheek with which he ends the first act of his first non-opera “Sweeney Todd” with a Verdi-esque quartet, it seems that the only fault that can be laid at his feet is that he is another brilliant pedant. His critics may well ask where the nearly diabolical technique is tapped down to reveal the warmth, the heart-sound behind the mind.
In “Passion,” Sondheim answers all. A lonely child, “not quite beautiful,” brilliant of intellect but stymied of connection, gushing with talent yet grasping for self-worth, only the opening heart of that child grown to adulthood could have given us this second non-opera. With nowhere to applaud, so through-composed as to be completely seamless, “Passion” invites the audience to remember what it was like to love another person for exactly who they are, in exactly that moment. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Liz Lauren
In “Road Show,” now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman compress the story of minor American legends Wilson and Addison Mizner into a peripatetic fable. The Mizners lived big, meandering and literally beguiling lives. They crossed paths with, or just crossed, many notable Americans as they made their way. The real Wilson, a Promethean con man, first sought his fortune in Alaska, where he helped create Nome with a saloon and crooked card table. Between 1910 and 1933, he worked both on Broadway and in Hollywood, where he co-wrote sexualized dramas about ambition and cons. When streetcar magnate Charles T. Yerkes died, Wilson married his widow Mary Adelaide Moore Yerkes and moved into her 5th Avenue mansion, selling forgeries of her masters paintings. Wilson had a Johnsonian knack for quips. He presumably was the first to utter “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet the same people on your way down.” Wilson eventually sued the former Mrs. Yerkes for divorce. When his attorney reportedly asked his reasons, Wilson asked “Isn’t marriage enough?” Read the rest of this entry »
Louise Pitre and Jessica Rush/Photo: Liz Lauren
This production of “Gypsy,” now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, begins gorgeously before the first note, at the silent sight of the ornate gilded frame of a stage that promises showbiz is about to happen. Then, boom, it does. The production’s big brassy crackerjack orchestra delivers “Gypsy’”s spectacular overture. It would be a fine concert piece in itself, if it did not tease the musical’s rich set of great, now standard, Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim tunes. Like the kids in the show who are ordered to “Sing Out!” by Madame Rose, the tiger-stage-mother who commands them, this production commits. This must be one of the best-looking, best-acted and best instrumental stagings of “Gypsy” ever.
The show famously recounts the teen years of Louise, the future Gypsy Rose Lee, as her family, headed by the domineering Rose, travels the 1920s Vaudeville circuit. They’re a kitschy young children’s act composed of aging kids. The show revolves mainly around Rose and how her two daughters and loyal lover deal with, and ultimately reject her machinations. At first, the kids are played by real children. Small Emily Leahy as Louise’s headlining sister Baby June is a singing, tapping baton-twirling wonder. Caroline Heffernan as the young Louise/future Gypsy movingly conveys how being a normal, shy, smart child estranged her from her mother yearning for the family’s stardom. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
Opening a Stephen Sondheim show, even one of his most popular, two days before Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Gary Griffin—the city’s unquestioned master of stellar Sondheim productions—puts up “Gypsy,” is either an act of savvy marketing or foolish bravado. But The Hypocrites, long associated with founder Sean Graney’s over-the-top zaniness, are maturing into a company adept at matching the freewheeling creativity that earned their reputation with the ability to round up specialized talent and the discipline to deliver musical theater capable of working on its own melodic merits. They’ve proven so recently with a couple of Gilbert & Sullivan classics, but now show they’re far from a one-composer wonder. The Hypocrites’ “Into the Woods” is a wonder on its own: at once a faithful interpretation of Sondheim and James Lapine’s beloved classic—with some terrific voices and a small but sturdy cohort of behind-the-scenes musicians—that never loses sight of the Hypocrites’ signature sense of humor. The musical opens with the cast lollygagging on a stage set created by William Boles to look like a preschool classroom, a perfectly reasonable launching point for a story that mashes up some of the Brothers Grimm’s finest, from Jack and the Beanstalk to Little Red Riding Hood to Cinderella. Read the rest of this entry »
By Johnny Oleksinski
Playwright and Chicago native son David Ives is receiving a rolling homecoming by happenstance this season and next. Last winter, Chicago Shakespeare Theater presented his adaptation of Molière’s “The Misanthrope,” called “The School for Lies.” Next March, the Goodman Theatre will stage the Chicago premiere of his thunderous Best Play Tony Award-nominated “Venus in Fur” (Nina Arianda won Best Actress). And coming up later this month is “The Liar,” Ives’ modernly classic take on Pierre Corneille’s little-known “Le Menteur” at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe.
Read the rest of this entry »
Jason Danieley and Carmen Cusack/Photo: Liz Lauren
Following up on his spectacular production of “Follies” last spring, Gary Griffin returns to Sondheim to open Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new season with a work he mounted at the venue a decade ago but which, this time around, has fittingly moved into the company’s larger downstairs theater.
Unlike works of the Sondheim canon with a clear narrative and straight-ahead musical numbers, “Sunday in the Park with George” is a more abstract and at times virtually operatic Sondheim opus about the genesis and contemporary significance of a major work of art that is a Chicago institution, namely, Georges Seurat’s “Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte” (“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”).
Sondheim, like everyone else, was fascinated with “La Grande Jatte,” and used to make trips to Chicago just to spend time with the painting in the Art Institute. Reading catalogs and anything else he could get his hands on about the work—which signaled a new style of Impressionism, dubbed Pointillism, that used precise dots rather than brush strokes—only to find himself sorely disappointed about how little was actually known about it. We do know it took Seurat two years to paint the giant canvas and that he created various studies for it that have survived. Sondheim combined these details with the curious fact that Seurat himself, who did paint self-portraits, did not include himself in the work and the mystery of his death at age thirty-one of unknown causes, to construct a speculative cross-generational fiction. Read the rest of this entry »
The most important piece of information I must relay unto you, dear reader, is that “Rain: A Tribute To The Beatles,” while residing in one of the Loop’s largest theatrical touring houses, is not, praise Sondheim, a musical. “Rain” is, through and through, a concert. And yet, absent of a jukebox musical’s flimsy plot structures and lame self-referential humor, “Rain” is an unquestionably theatrical experience.
I was born and bred a Beatles fan. In my early teenage years, I would rock out to nothing else. From that perspective, if you do not have, at least, a passing tolerance of the Fab Four’s music, then your body will forcibly reject “Rain” like a nose ring that was never meant to be. But ever since their legendary debut in 1960, not another band has formed a pop-cultural consensus quite like that of the Beatles. I grew up in the nineties, and young Beatlemaniacs were commonplace and proud. I’ve never heard anyone say “I hate the Beatles,” and if I ever do, I expect that person will append it with “Bah humbug!” Read the rest of this entry »
Jonathan Weir and Shannon Cochran/Photo: Michael Brosilow
Although Writers’ Theatre is celebrating its twentieth anniversary season, it only began performing musicals a few seasons ago and with mixed results. But with William Brown on board to direct an all-new production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” perfectly suited to its intimate stage, Writers is giving us a musical production worthy of an important anniversary year.
“A Little Night Music” is the closest Sondheim work to an operetta, with its consistent use of waltz-like rhythms—virtually everything is in triple meter—and some of his most melodic material, including his most popular song, “Send in the Clowns.” It is also Sondheim’s most elaborate use of the kind of counterpoint that Leonard Bernstein had experimented with in the climax of “West Side Story,” for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Musically, it ranks among Sondheim’s most ambitious and adventurous works.
That the acting would be of the highest caliber was no surprise, for that is a Writers’ Theatre trademark. But that the musical component should be rendered so exquisitely was a welcome surprise given the unevenness of past musical productions. Musical director Valerie Maze—who also conducts from the piano and celeste—and her extraordinary tiny orchestra (including a tucked-away harp) render Sondheim’s lush score with surprising richness for such small forces. And each performer sings the score superbly even in the complex ensemble numbers, no small feat for how removed the performers often are from the orchestra. Read the rest of this entry »