Side by Side with Sondheim at Circa a life-enhancing experience

Songs and Lyrics from the stage musicals of Stephen Sondheim

Julie O’Brien, Matthew Pike and Sarah Lineham (singers)
Musicians: Michael Nicholas Williams and Colin Taylor (pianos)
Director: Emma Kinane
Musical Director: Michael Nicholas Williams
Choreographer: Leigh Evans

Circa One, Circa Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 23rd February (until 22nd March , 2019)

I’m not exactly a veteran of live performances of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals – New Zealand Opera did a splendid “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in 2016 (which production AND its performance I raved about, here on “Middle C”) and both the NZ Drama School and the NZ School of Music have presented sizeable excerpts from, respectively “Company” and “Into the Woods”, each of which was deftly, evocatively done. So Sondheim is a name which resonates for me more in reputation than actual experience – though judging from the amazing range and scope of the songs presented here this evening, he’s a composer whose work would seem likely to bear rich rewards upon examination.

Here, we were given something of a whirlwind tour with no less than twelve of the composer’s stage works represented – some repeatedly (both “Company” and “Follies” contributed eight songs each to the programme), though all the others were represented by either one or two numbers. Of the two most-represented shows, I thought the selection here in each case nicely touched upon the essences of the works, the songs from Company vividly encapsulating the lyricist/composer’s rather
savage anatomising of marriage as an institution via the portrayals of various couples and their interactions at a party given for their bachelor friend, Robert. As well as the married company, the “available talent” is no less caustically depicted via a sure-fire show-stopper of a first-half closer, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”,  a trio featuring all three singers in a tour-de-force of energy, timing and sharp characterisation, with Matthew Pike as a thoroughly convincing “middle girl” – delightful.

“Follies” depicts a reunion of former showgirls, interacting with the ghosts of their former selves, re-instigating the trappings of their former glories, and reminiscing about former lovers, both sentimentally and naughtily – two of the girls, resplendent in feather boas, recall the particular talents of a particular boy in “Can that Boy” with suitably suggestive inflections putting lead in the pencil of the word “foxtrot” with suitable relish. Later, four consecutive numbers from the show take us to the beating heart of these faded glories, a trio (once again) of beauties introduce “La Grande Dame” extolling the charms of Paris, an Al Jolson-inspired “Buddy’s Blues”, and the heartbreak of a wannabe hopeful in ”Broadway Baby”.

Some of Sondheim’s most popular individual songs from other shows are here – I knew three of them instantly, the first, “Comedy Tonight” beginning the evening, both instrumentally (some nifty work by the two-piano ensemble of Michael Nicholas Williams and Colin Taylor, with barnstorming octaves in places from the former in the best romantic piano tradition) and vocally, the singers appearing one by one, bringing their very different vocal characteristics to the presentation mix. Another was “A Boy like That” from “West Side Story” for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics in tandem with Leonard Bernstein’s music, here presented as an individual number, though in a kind of medley entitled “Conversation Piece” various familiar songs from the show dominated the line-up.

But the show would have been unthinkable without the composer’s out-and-out signature tune, “Send in the Clowns”, from his work “A little Night Music”, a musical in which various relationships between people, both young and older are explored (it was based on Ingmar Bergmann’s 1955 film “Smiles of a Summer Night”. The song itself, unlike many we heard during the course of the evening, is more wry about than disillusioned with love and romance, and was presented here in suitably “Do I wake or do I sleep?” tones that also contrasted greatly with the high-octane thresholds of most of the evening’s “stand-and-deliver” excitements.

In contrast to the work of one of Sondheim’s mentors, Oscar Hammerstein, who became a kind of surrogate father-figure for the boy after his parents were divorced, most of the younger man’s stage works reflect an era of disillusionment and frustration within Western society, and specifically in the United States, presenting both the individual and whole groups of people at this time in conflict with their  expectations and aspirations, far removed from the worlds of standard fare like “Oklahoma”, “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music”, with their “happy endings”. I remember being struck by something of this quality when encountering “Into the Woods”, at the end of which none of the fairy-tale characters get to “live happily ever after”. It’s the ambivalence about life that one comes away from Sondheim’s work feeling which matters and which is truer to life than any “dreams come true” scenarios.

Though the show wasn’t without its technical gremlins (resulting in the first half loss of a microphone for one of the singers) the performers, instrumentalists and singer/actors, threw themselves into this maelstrom of, by turns, wry and sardonic vexation and disenchantment, and brought a potent marriage of music and theatre to life. I thought the technique of getting the vocalists to “narrate” the context of each of the pieces made for an engaging, organic effect, perhaps to a fault in paces, as a few of the words were sometimes lost in an all-encompassing whirl of scenario-change activity.

It’s a tribute to the stage instincts of co-directors Emma Kinane and Michel Nicholas Williams that words, music and stage action here brought out for us all the variegated emotions and subtle detailings of Sondheim’s creations, given further ease and flow by Leigh Evans’ direct, unfussy choreography – the “clowns” were onstage in front of us at times, but they knew their place. Lisa Maule’s lighting I thought properly and stunningly “illuminated” what was important to notice and what was left to the imagination, engaging our sensibilities rather than putting things merely on a screen or in a box, enhancing the idea of our being in the same performing space.

I’ve already mentioned the almost visceral effects of the piano realisations generated variously by both players at their own instruments, with ample use of the “orchestral” effects of reducing the accompaniments in places, most movingly, to a single line. Each of the singers enhanced the songs’ individual contexts in this respect, so that we were readily taken by turns into those different, sometimes brashly-wrought, sometimes finely-delineated worlds of feeling as song followed song.

Each of the singers had their particular strengths, Julie O’Brien in particular “owning” everything she undertook, from the insanely tumbledown outpourings of “Getting Married Today” with its Gilbert-and-Sullivan-plus patter, through her naughtily teasing “I never do Anything Twice”, giving the fingers of her pianist Michael Nicholas Williams an anxious moment or two, to her ineffably moving, “imagined-out-loud” rendition of “Send in the Clowns” – throughout the latter, one could at any time have heard the proverbial pin drop most disarmingly. Matthew Pike’s gift for characterisation was evident throughout, but especially telling in “I Remember” (from the show ”Evening Primrose”),  a song requiring contrasting evocations of nostalgia, wide-eyed wonderment and spontaneous excitement, delivered here in spadefuls. And Sarah Lineham, bringing a completely different vocal quality to the mix, demonstrated a sweetness of tone and a stratospheric purity in places in her slower, quieter music, such as the opening of “Losing My Mind” from “Follies”, though her tones were more difficult to “catch” when her solo music quickened or hardened, as in the climax of the same number. However, I could forgive her anything after relishing her virtuosic solo trumpet-playing in “You Gotta get a Gimmick”.

Where Lineham also shone was in the ensembles, along with the other two – the contributions of all three in the first half’s closing “You could drive a Person Crazy” made for an absolutely delightful effect, as sharp and incisive as any “Andrews Sisters” realisation I’ve heard! The one or two stunning solo renditions apart, the overall effect of the presentation is one of superb teamwork, the only caveat being the extraneous microphone noises which made unwelcome contributions to the opening part of the first half – thankfully things seemed resolved and restored after the interval.

Sondheim fans will need no further urgings – the experience of hearing these songs so expertly brought to life has made me want to explore the composer’s work further, which I think in itself amounts to praise of a recommendable order. Many thanks to Circa and to the creative talents involved for providing such a life-enhancing experience!

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