A glorious journey Into the Woods

Woods 1
ABOVE: Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus, a real-life married couple, are the Baker’s Wife and the Baker in the national touring company of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods. BELOW: David Patrick Kelly (left) is the Mysterious Man, Kennedy Kanagawa (center) is the puppeteer for Milky White the cow and Cole Thompson is Jack (of the beanstalk fame). Photos by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

By all accounts, last year’s New York City Center Encores! production of Into the Woods, the beloved fairytale mash-up by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, was a special kind of magic. Director Lear deBessonet stripped away all the fairytale frippery and let the actors and Sondheim’s glorious score shine through. Even when the show transferred to Broadway and cast members started to rotate in and out, it seems the magic just couldn’t be dampened. Surely, when the production began its national tour, it would be rather less luminous version of itself.

Based on what is on stage at the Curran Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, this Into the Woods is destined to be the version that makes musical theater audiences react like they’re at a Taylor Swift concert. At least that was the case at Tuesday’s opening-night performance. From the instant the curtain rose swiftly up to reveal a large slice of the cast, the audience roared its approval, and that roar only increased over the next few hours.

Everything about this Woods is so confident, clear and crisp that you merely need to exhale and be swept up in the swift moving joys of great actors, beautiful voices and a score that continually reveals treasures no matter how many times you’ve heard it. In short, this production – which is full of performers who also did this on Broadway – really is as delightful and as heart-expanding as we’ve heard it is.

At the center of the story is the Baker’s Wife and the Baker’s Wife’s Husband (aka The Baker) played by real-life marrieds Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus, and they exemplify so much of why this production works so beautifully. They carefully tread the line between cartoonish and realistic. They get big laughs when they need to and just as easily trigger the tears. They are as warm and charming as they can be, but they’re also precise and magnificent when it comes to the music and the lyrics. They are simultaneously theatrical and relatable – we get that they’re storybook characters on a quest to kill the curse that has rendered them childless, but we also care about them.

Woods 2
Block’s full-body delight at her dalliance with a prince in the woods (“Any Moment” performed with the sterling Gavin Creel, who provokes full-body delight in the entire theater) is palpable, so it’s no surprise that her “Moments in the Woods,” which follows, is an emotionally complex (adultery is fun! or is it?), joyfully vigorous showstopper.

The way this show works its magic is also evident in Milky White, the cow belonging to and best friend of Jack (Cole Thompson, who will later tangle with giants at the top of the beanstalk. Sure, it’s a puppet (designed by James Ortiz) operated by a skilled puppeteer, but that doesn’t begin to convey how much emotion surrounds this cow with the sad, sparkly eyes. Kennedy Kanagawa masterfully manipulates the decrepit bovine, but his physical dexterity and expressive face complete the equation in ways that continually surprise and captivate. It’s a simple idea with a huge payoff.

Every detail has been attended to here, and the 16-piece orchestra (in full view on stage) conducted by John Bell ensures that Sondheim’s music is the life blood of the show. Lyrics are so clear that no whiff of enchantment, cynicism, despair, grief or arrogance goes unnoticed, and Bell keeps the show moving swiftly – not too fast but just fast enough that the fairytale glee of the first act lingers long enough to undergird the reality that intrudes in Act 2 (when the body count begins to rival a Shakespearean tragedy). With the orchestra on stage, this could come across as a staged concert, but it doesn’t. David Rockwell’s simple set – a few set pieces and just enough large birch tree trunks to convey a forest – relies on the sharp lighting by Tyler Micoleau and the simple costumes (by Andrea Hood) to add color and tone.

There is no shortage of standout moments and performances, but Creel as Cinderella’s Prince and his compatriot Jason Forbach as Rapunzel’s Prince, mine every last laugh out of their duet, “Agony” and its woefully domesticated reprise. David Patrick Kelly is a robust narrator and actually makes sense of the Mysterious Man, who is so moving on “No More,” a duet with the Baker. Katy Geraghty is the embodiment of innocence and experience wrestling under a blood-red cape as a tart Little Red Ridinghood. Diane Phelan‘s soprano soars on Cinderella’s “On the Steps of the Palace,” and Felicia Curry, filling in for Montego Glover as the Witch on Tuesday, electrifies on “Stay With Me” and the impossibly moving “Children Will Listen.”

Sophisticated and silly, sublime and deeply moving, Into the Woods – especially this Into the Woods – is the fairytale we most need to experience in all its musical theater glory.

The chances look small,
The choices look grim,
But everything you learn there
Will help when you return there.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods continues a brief run through June 25 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $90-$299. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com

The never-again genius of Sondheim

Sondheim 1

One thing we can say for sure about Stephen Sondheim is that he died knowing just how loved and admired he was. It seems like the legendary Broadway composer was receiving lifetime tributes for at least the last 40 years, and it also seems like he was there for all of it, humbled, slightly embarrassed but always pleased and moved.

Sondheim’s death this week at age 91 can’t really be described as a surprise, but it’s still a shock. At least since the ’70s, when his incredible output included Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd, he has been contemporary musical theater’s north star – probably the single greatest influence on generation after generation of musical theater writers, directors and performers. To see that light extinguished is profoundly sad, even though the work – so much brilliant work! – will flourish for many generations to come.

Sondheim has been one of my musical theater passions for so long, I had to really stop and think about a time when I didn’t know every show, hadn’t read the books (by him, about him, about his shows), hadn’t obsessively collected the recordings. Growing up in Reno, NV, in the ’70s and ’80s I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to see Sondheim shows, but the few I did made a huge impact. I know my first exposure to Sondheim came through Barbra Streisand’s The Broadway Album in 1985. Seven of the 12 tracks involved Sondheim as either composer/lyricist or just the lyricist, and he famously re-wrote two songs, “Putting It Together” and “Send in the Clowns,” at Streisand’s request (which also got his photo into the liner notes, marking the first time I remember seeing his grizzled face).

The first Sondheim show I saw was the University of Nevada, Reno’s Theatre and Dance Department’s 1987 production of Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies. The irony was that the show is about a great old theater about to be torn down to build a parking lot was being performed in a brand-new new theater built on what was formerly a parking lot. About two years later, the same company in the same space did Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, a supposedly troubled show that absolutely blew my mind and cracked my heart open.

After moving to San Francisco and becoming a theater critic, I didn’t fully review a Sondheim show until 1998’s Follies at American Musical Theatre of San Jose. I wasn’t crazy about the production, but I loved the show, writing, “Throughout Sondheim’s 40-year career, there have been complaints about his shows being too cerebral and not hummable. Well, those complainers have never seen Follies. Sure, the lyrics are, as expected, smart and clever. And the grand pleasures of the follies numbers are offset by a rather snide take on marriage and relationships. But what songs! This is Sondheim at his most audience-friendly and his most hummable.”

Sondheim 2

I have since seen live productions of most of Sondheim’s shows (except for Anyone Can Whistle, The Frogs and his last produced show, Road Show) and couldn’t name a favorite because I’m constantly changing my mind. Sometimes it’s Company (sheer genius top to bottom), sometimes Merrily (so much beauty amid so much pain), sometimes A Little Night Music (the glorious music), occasionally it’s even Sweeney Todd (the humor is unmatched).

To my mind, it’s all of a piece – a giant slice of creative brilliance we have been graced to experience since Sondheim’s lyricist-only days on West Side Story and Gypsy and on through everything he touched through these last months when he appeared on Stephen Colbert’s talk show, attended the first preview of the re-opened Company and sang the praises of the soon-to-be-released remake of West Side Story from director Steven Spielberg.

In the wake of Sondheim’s death, what has been most striking in the flood of tributes is the gratitude for his colossal contribution to the arts. I don’t think we can even begin to wrap our heads around just how great his impact has been or will continue to be. Look no further than the recent film version of …tick, tick, BOOM on Netflix in which Sondheim is a character (played by Bradley Whitford who mentors the main character, based on Rent composer Jonathan Larsen to whom, like so many, Sondheim served as mentor and champion. Toward the end of the movie, Jonathan receives an answering machine message from Sondheim, but listen closely: it’s not Whitford. It’s actually Sondheim. Director Lin-Manuel Miranda had shared the scene with Sondheim, who felt the message as originally written was “trite” and would Lin mind if he took a stab at it. He not only re-wrote it, he also recorded the message. “It makes me weep to even think about,” Miranda told EW magazine. “Because he was such a mentor to Jon and generations of songwriters.” Just as Oscar Hammerstein was a mentor to Sondheim.

I have a friend who, for years, has insisted that she simply doesn’t like Sondheim, try as she might. Too many words, not enough melody. And for all those years, I’ve had a running playlist in my head to try and convince her of Sondheim’s genius. That will probably never happen, but I do have a Spotfiy playlist of favorites that I’m happy to share. The genius, the versatility, the humor, the heart, the keen observation – it’s all here. And always will be.

Fractured fairy tales shine in stripped-down Woods

Woods 1
The company of Into the Woods, a Fiasco Theater production that is part of the SHN season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Lisa Helmi Johanson as Little Red Ridinghood and Anthony Chatmon II as The Wolf. Photos by Joan Marcus

You’ve journeyed Into the Woods, but you haven’t ever been into these woods.

When great musicals are revived, the first question has to be: why? Is it going to be another retread of a successful prior production? Or will it be a reinvention, a new take for a new time? Happily the latter is the case with the glorious Fiasco Theater re-imagining of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods. This production, which debuted at Princeton’s McCarter Theater four years ago, is an unlikely candidate for a national tour, what with its stripped-down aesthetic and bare minimum cast – 10 performers, one pianist. But this show, which is coming to the end of its tour, dazzles in ways far beyond the whirligigs of massive sets and effects and the aural gleam of synthesizers or the blast of a full orchestra.

Part of the SHN season at the Golden Gate Theatre, this Woods might seem far too small and intimate for such a large house, but with an assist from set designer Derek McLane, who uses ropes and piano parts to create a sense of someone’s cavernous junk-strewn attic, co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld create a storyteller’s version of a show about the stories we tell. This is the kind of revival that makes you wonder if this is, at last, the telling of this particular story that was always meant to be. Strip away all the excess and just let Lapine’s sturdy book and Sondheim’s gloriously clever, powerfully moving score do the work they were intended to do.

Of course words and music could fall flat without the right performers to bring them to life, and Fiasco’s 11-member ensemble rises to the challenge of the show and then some. This is truly an ensemble, which feels exactly right for a show whose standout anthem is “No One Is Alone.” Every actor plays multiple roles. Every actor provides sound effects. Every actor helps pianist/music director Evan Rees fill out the score by playing, among instruments, cello, bassoon, guitar, French horn, penny whistle, trumpet, toy piano and baritone horn. My one concern about this production heading into it was that the rich score would feel too spare with only piano accompaniment, but I needn’t have worried. The show sounds different to be sure, but it sounds great and perfectly suited to this telling.

Woods 2

Lapine’s structure, which was obliterated in the lush, ultimately unsatisfying 2014 Disney movie version, takes advantage of the two-act structure to give us a Grimm mashup in Act 1, with Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack of beanstalk fame and an invented Mr. and Mrs. Baker scurrying through the woods, intersecting, clashing and causing general fairy tale mayhem on the way to their respective happy endings. Then, in Act 2, they get to the crux of the matter: what happens after happily ever after when no one is really satisfied, no one’s longing is really sated and there’s no such thing as happy, let alone ever after.

The massive amount of storytelling in Act 1 can grow cumbersome, even in the finest productions, but Fiasco solves the problem through the speed and time saved not having to worry about bulky sets and costumes. The actors convey everything they need to convey through the simplest means – Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters are “costumed” by curtains on a rod; Jack’s beloved cow, Milky White, is played by the expressive (and scene-stealing) actor Darick Pead, who also plays a stepsister and Rapunzel’s Prince. Birds are folded pieces of paper. A hen is a feather duster. The characterizations are so crisply delineated that even at high speeds, there’s never any confusion – rather the story seems even more filled with humor and spark.

Because this is a genuine ensemble, it’s hard to spotlight specific performances. Stephanie Umoh as the witch is especially powerful after the witch regains her youth and beauty but loses her magical powers. Patrick Mulryan as Jack sings a stunning “Giants in the Sky,” and as previously mentioned, his relationship with his old cow is the source of great humor and surprising poignancy. The princes’ duet on “Agony” is often a highlight of the show, and that is true here thanks to Anthony Chatmon II (who is also fantastic as the Wolf in “Hello, Little Girl”) and Pead. Lisa Helmi Johanson is equally striking as Little Red Riginghood and as Rapunzel, and Evan Harrington brings strong emotion to the Baker’s “No More,” which is matched by Eleasha Gamble as the Baker’s Wife delivering the emotional goods on “No One Is Alone” after the plaintive humor of “Moments in the Woods.”

A special shout-out to lighting designer Christopher Akerlind for the astonishing things he does with the wall of ropes at the back of the stage (which look like taut wires in a piano). He also evokes the terror of a giant causing carnage and mayhem with simple but incredibly effective blackouts and flashes.

The contrast between light and dark, silly and somber, archetypal and flesh and blood has never been more distinct than it is here, and the darkness, which is usually saved for Act 2 can be felt from the start, and conversely, the humor that is usually contained in the first act flares throughout the show. But it’s the ensemble nature of the show that really pays off here. Not only are all of these performers electrifyingly good, they work beautifully together. They are inspiring. And, at the end of the show, that’s the whole point. We get through it together more effectively than we do on our own. It’s not touchy-feely preaching. It’s practical; it’s soul deep; and we’re listening.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods continues through April 2 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $60-$275. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

Music makes good Company at SF Playhouse

Company 1
Robert (Keith Pinto, center) suffers his friends and their attempts to fix him up Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 musical Company now at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Amy (Monique Hafen) continues to have second thoughts as her fiancé Paul (John Paul Gonzalez) stands by. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

The summer musical Company at San Francisco Playhouse is good, not great, and that’s only disappointing because the show itself, with a score by Stephen Sondheim and a book by George Furth is absolutely great. An unusual musical, Company is constructed like a play made up of short, not necessarily connected scenes about marriage that are interrupted by songs, also about the pain (and some joy) of connubial “bliss.” It all comes together brilliantly and ends up feeling like a cohesive show. It was a revelation in 1970 and remains a high point of contemporary musical theater.

The really stellar part of this production, directed by Susi Damilano, is hearing the score played on twin pianos. Music director Dave Dobrusky is stage right and another pianist (Eryn Allen, Ben Prince and Michael Anthony Schuler are the rotating players) is stage left on the multilevel set (by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott abetted by the giant Manhattan projections by Micha Stieglitz). The sound of the original 1970 production is so distinctive (those electric guitars!) from the original cast album that it’s often strange to hear the score played in other ways, but Dobrusky, using orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, delivers a full, exciting sound that allows you to hear the score with fresh ears.

There’s unevenness in Damilano’s 14-member cast, but key elements are strong.

Keith Pinto is at the center of the marital maelstrom as Bobby, a perpetual bachelor whose married friends are celebrating his 35th birthday. Bobby Bubbi Robert Darling Bobby Baby (as his friends call him) is a tricky character. He’s a cad, a charmer and a cypher. He’s built up all kinds of defenses to keep the world at arm’s length, and his interaction with women tends to be on a wham, bam, temporary ma’am basis. He’s an inveterate third wheel in the world of his married pals – there are five couples who comprise his immediate circle – and for the couples, single Bobby serves as a sort of witness to their discord. Pinto plays Bobby’s warmth and his flaws expertly, and though Bobby as a character doesn’t come fully into his own until the end of the show (there’s never been a better epiphany song than “Being Alive”), Pinto shines in his solos leading up to the breakthrough, “Someone Is Waiting” and “Marry Me a Little.”

Company 2

There’s been all kinds of talk through the years that the real story of Company is that Bobby is gay and hasn’t figured it out yet. That’s certainly interesting, and any production of the show that doesn’t set it in 1970 has to wrestle with that and the fact that there’s zero discussion of same-sex marriage. Damilano’s production is set now (Bobby has a smart phone), and a story he tells about getting lost on the way back to a hotel hook-up seems like it could easily have been solved by Google Maps. The show doesn’t feel dated exactly because the themes are universal and the writing is so incisive, but it definitely feels out of time.

In this production, Bobby is resolutely straight, and his married friends are all heteronormative (to use a trendy word). The most interesting among them is also the most neurotic: Amy, nicely played by Monique Hafen, basically has a nervous breakdown in her tongue-twisting solo “Getting Married Today” and then has to deal with the consequences. Another of Bobby’s friends, Joanne, never met a cocktail she couldn’t seduce, and as played by Stephanie Prentice, she’s brittle and damaged. Prentice’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” is a powerhouse, and in the context of her scene – she’s just gone on a rant and then shifts into vixen mode – it’s a beautifully calibrated performance.

Morgan Dayley is sweet, funny and dippy as April, a flight attendant who dallies with Bobby, and their scene is another highlight leading into a darkly funny “Barcelona.” A standout song in a score that’s full of them is “Sorry-Grateful,” one of the best songs ever written about marriage, is affectingly performed by a trio of husbands: Christopher Reber, Ryan Drummond and Richard Frederick.

The big dance number, “Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You?,” has some spark to it, but the choreography by Kimberly Richards feels disconnected from the characters and their relationships. For instance, after the cast has been twirling canes in a vaudevillian way, they discard the canes by dumping them in Bobby’s arms. That’s a great image that seems like it’s going somewhere, but then it doesn’t. And she has Bobby prancing around the stage like the Emcee in Cabaret and that feels remarkably out of sync with the character.

Thankfully this is not a dance show. Director Damilano exerts a strong influence over the book scenes, and most of them have real edge. The issues and emotions of those scenes is then magnified by the music, which remains this production’s strong suit from the moment the phone rings, door chimes and in comes company right through to the moment Bobby realizes alone is alone, not alive.

Company continues through Sept. 12 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Ladies’ night at ACT’s Music

A Little Night Music 02 web
Madame Armfeldt (Dana Ivey, right) tells her granddaughter, Fredrika Armfeldt (Brigid O’Brien), about how the summer might smiles three times in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music, an ACT production at the Geary Theater. Below: Emily Skinner is Countess Charlotte Malcolm, an embittered wife who sings the fierce song “Every Day a Little Death.” Photo by Kevin Berne

In the 1970s, Stephen Sondheim was on some kind of roll. From Company to Follies to Pacific Overtures to Sweeney Todd, the decade found at the peak of his considerable powers. He was – and is – a musical theater superhero, but in the midst of all that musical and lyrical genius, he dropped a nearly perfect show that was at once a classic musical – operetta almost – and completely contemporary.

A Little Night Music is a dazzling combination of light and funny, clever and romantic with sharp and incisive, deep and dark. The show has elegance and a light touch with an undercurrent of regret, sorrow and misery to keep it from floating away.

American Conservatory Theater is producing Night Music, and though there are some problems with the production, it provides a stellar opportunity to see the show’s genius at work. I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt.

Leading men Patrick Cassidy as lawyer Frederik Egerman and Paolo Montalban as dragoon Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm both cut striking figures, but their acting and singing tend toward the stolid or overly cartoonish. They are eclipsed by their female co-stars who, in scene after scene and song after song, handily take control of this “Night Music.” Of the men, only Justin Scott Brown as Frederik’s frustrated, lovelorn son, makes a lingering impression.

Karen Ziemba as fading stage actress Desiree Armfeldt gets to be world weary (“The Glamorous Life”), funny (“You Must Meet My Wife”) and gently heartbreaking (“Send in the Clowns”), all the while managing to be completely lovable. Desiree is aching for “some sort of coherent existence after so many years of muddle,” and Ziemba makes us root for her success.

Read the full review here.

A Little Night Music 09 print

I interviewed director Mark Lamos and cast members Karen Ziemba, Emily Skinner, Dana Ivey and Patrick Cassidy about working on A Little Night Music for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music continues through June 21 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$140. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Judy Collins warbles Sondheim

Judy Collins 1
Judy Collins translates her hit with Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” into an evening of the composer’s works in Judy Collins Sings Sondheim, a presentation of Bay Area Cabaret at the Venetian Room in the Fairmont. Photo courtesy of Judy Collins

It’s only logical that Judy Collins would end up doing a show devoted to the songs of Stephen Sondheim. The legendary American singer is, after all, the only one to deliver Sondheim an actual hit. Her version of his “Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music) is his only radio hit – it was on the Billboard charts for 11 weeks in 1975, peaking at No. 36. Then, rather amazingly, Collins’ recording charted again in 1977, peaking at No 19. The recording also nabbed a Grammy for song of the year.

Some three decades later, Collins, more gorgeous than ever at 75, is parlaying her success with “Clowns” into an entire act. Judy Collins Sings Sondheim made its debut Saturday night as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season at the Venetian Room in the Fairmont San Francisco. Accompanied on piano by Russ Walden Collins launched an ambitious show that is clearly still a work in progress.

Collins’ voice is as pure and powerful as it ever was, and when she truly connects to a song, there’s no better place to be than sitting rapt in her audience. Quite often in the show, though, Collins relied heavily on lyric sheets to make her way through the labyrinth of Sondheim’s dexterous verbosity. That reliance kept her from fully investing in the songs, although musically she was on far surer footing.

Collins is also attempting, in her patter, to interweave her autobiography with Sondheim’s life story. The results are awkward, and, for the most part, unnecessary. We don’t need to know that Sondheim was 9 when Collins was born in 1939 or that the hit song of the day was “Over the Rainbow” (although hearing Collins sing a little of that song is delightful) or that maybe Sondheim’s parents took him to see the movie. The attempt at twin narratives is really a way for Collins to sneak in some of her own hit songs.

We hear “Both Sides Now,” “My Father,” “Some Day Soon” and “Chelsea Morning,” and it’s interesting when she’s singing one of her well-worn songs, how much more effective and connected she is than when she’s tentatively stepping through the Sondheim material.

That’s not to say, however, that it’s a trial to listen to Collins sing Sondheim. On the contrary, it’s fascinating to hear what she does with the intriguing material she has selected. The trio of songs that, to my mind, have the potential of being “Send in the Clowns”-worthy interpretations are “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from Sweeney Todd, the title song from Anyone Can Whistle and “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods. Each song benefits from Collins’ shimmering soprano, and she finds a trenchant folk element in each.

For someone who says she didn’t know who Sondheim was before she recorded “Clowns,” Collins has clearly become an enthusiast. Her song choices stretch from the better known (“Being Alive” from Company, “I’m Still Here” from Follies, “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along) to the wonderfully obscure (“Take Me to the World” and “I Remember” from Evening Primrose, “The Road You Didn’t Take” from Follies). She honors Sunday in the Park with George with a full medley that includes “Children and Art,” “Sunday,” “Finishing the Hat” and “Move On.” When she fully masters this medley, it’s going to be magnificent.

And that’s pretty much my feeling about Judy Collins Sings Sondheim – it’s a great idea for a great performer and is well on its way to being a glorious showcase for the talents of both Sondheim and Collins.

[bonus video]
Here’s Judy Collins singing “Send in the Clowns” with the Boston Pops in 1976.

Judy Collins Sings Sondheim has one more performance at 5 p.m. March 1. $60 general, $45 subscribers. $90 premium includes post-show meet and greet. Coming up in the Bay Area Cabaret season at the Venetian Room: March 21 Ramsey Lewis and John Pizzarelli; April 19 Annaleigh Ashford; May 31 Bobby Conte Thornton at 5 p.m. and Lillias White and Billy Stritch at 8 p.m. Call 415-392-4400 or visit www.bayareacabaret.org.

Blitz bombs but TheatreWorks’ Sweeney still soars

Sweeney 1
Tonsorial expert Sweeney Todd (David Studwell) and Mrs. Lovett (Tory Ross) concoct a recipe for revenge in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Below: Tobias (Spencer Kiley) revels in the booming business of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. Photos by Kevin Berne

Tory Ross’ sublime performance as Mrs. Lovett, maker of the “worst pies in London,” threatens to hijack the TheatreWorks production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and turn it into Nellie Lovett: People Who Eat People Are the Luckiest People.

There’s no escaping the genius of Angela Lansbury’s indelible performance (captured on video) in the original production of what composer Stephen Sondheim describes as a “dark operetta,” but that star turn was a Victorian cartoon, a manically genial grotesque with shadings of a real flesh-and-bone woman under all the goofiness.

But Ross is a whole lot less cartoon and a whole lot more human being. She’s still funny and sharp and kind of crazy, but she’s also a little sexy, a lot smart and quite adorable. She’s not some zany old broad but a vibrant woman who looks to be around Sweeney’s age (if a little younger). She’s a bright spot in a dark show and she makes more of an impression than David Studwell in the title role or director Robert Kelley’s strained updating of the show to World War II London.

This updating is vague at best. Set designer Andrea Bechert has built what looks like an underground factory that turns into a Tube station, which doesn’t entirely make sense, and the beginning of the show sees officials running around with air raid sirens wailing and people decamping to the safety of the subterranean setting. But then it gets fuzzy. Are we to believe that the evacuees are performing Sweeney Todd in its entirety complete with sets, orchestra, swirling stage smoke and lots of lighting cues? Or perhaps that’s too literal. But otherwise why is a Victorian tale of murder being performed during a potentially deadly bombing raid?

Sweeney 2

There’s a song later in the show called “City on Fire,” which takes Sondheim’s metaphorical firestorm (“City on fire! Rats in the grass/And the lunatics yelling in the streets!/ It’s the end of the word! Yes! City on fire!”) and makes it a literal bomb fest. That’s the only time the setting makes actual sense, but it doesn’t really add much to what Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler (working from Christopher Bond’s play) have already so masterfully created.

The best news about the “Keep Calm and Carry On”-ization of Sweeney is that it doesn’t really matter. Kelley’s production is otherwise tip-top. The voices are gorgeous and William Liberatore’s nine-piece orchestra sounds lush and full and heavy and bloody in all the right places, especially in the show’s cinematic underscore.

Sweeney Toddd is an extraordinary musical – incredibly efficient in its storytelling and full of comical and emotional surprises. It purports to be a horror show, but Sondheim’s score is constantly igniting laughs and sparking human connections. I’m not a fan of the Tim Burton movie except for the 64-piece orchestra and glorious orchestrations because the performances, for the most part, are cold and empty, as is the arm’s-length filmmaking.

But on stage, Sweeney pulses with life in all its operatic, chaotic craziness, and Kelley’s cast handles it all with tremendous gusto. Studwell’s Sweeney may not be as deeply felt or as vocally powerful as he might be, but he’s a strong, menacing presence who knows his way around a a dark ballad (“Epiphany”) and a straight razor. Jack Mosbacher as Anthony Hope makes a fine impression with his lustrous “Johanna,” one of Sondheim’s most achingly beautiful melodies, and Spencer Kiely couldn’t be any sweeter as Tobias Ragg on “Not While I’m Around.”

The entire ensemble sounds fantastic, but the musical highlights belong to Ross’ Mrs. Lovett. Her duet with Sweeney, “A Little Priest,” ends Act 1 on the highest of notes, and her “By the Sea” is at once delightful and sad (because it’s a fantasy that can never be).

There’s no blood in this production (just splashes of red light from designer Steven B. Mannshardt), but there’s plenty of melodrama, high and low, which is as it should be in a tale of revenge, murder and love, sweet love. Once this story gets going, it’s an efficient machine, not unlike Sweeney’s slick barber chair, which, with the pull of a lever, dumps bodies down a chute and into the butcher shop/cellar. As long as that machine is in motion, not even a cosmetic overlay like the Blitz setting, can keep it from accomplishing its wicked yet somehow wonderful musical magic.

TheatreWorks’ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues through Nov. 2 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$74. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Emily Skinner waltzes away with Moon’s Waltz

A love letter to Emily Skinner…

Dear Ms. Skinner,I had the pleasure of seeing you perform in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz, and I was completely captivated by your Leona Samish, the lonely American tourist who travels to Venice for a taste of life.

Waltz 3

I have fond memories of Moon’s 1998 production back when they were doing staged concert productions with actors holding their scripts. That was my first encounter with Waltz, a 1965 Broadway curiosity that matched three musical theater masters – Richard Rodgers writing the score, Stephen Sondheim writing the lyrics and Arthur Laurents writing the book based on his play The Time of the Cuckoo (also the source material for David Lean’s 1955 movie Summertime starring Katharine Hepburn as Jane Hudson, a totally re-written Leona). The show, by all accounts, was a misery to create, primarily because Rodgers, lacking confidence in his abilities in the wake of Oscar Hammerstein’s death, was a miserable and stubborn collaborator

The result is a show that feels part Follies, all sophistication and darkness, and part The Sound of Music, all cheerful musical comedy. Sondheim has described the show as perfectly respectable but labels it a “why?” musical – why, if the creators were not passionate about the adaptation, does the musical need to exist?

I can tell you, with some certainty, that “why?” was answered for me in the person of you, Ms. Skinner. This oddball musical needs to exist so that actors as skilled as you can perform in it and attempt to make some sense of it. I was not lucky enough to see you in your star-making turn in Side Show, but I did see you on Broadway in The Full Monty and in James Joyce’s The Dead, but seeing you in the intimate Eureka Theatre was a revelation. With no microphones and only piano accompaniment (Dave Dobrusky is the pianist/musical director), it was just you and the show and the audience.

Waltz 2

I will say that the set looks so much like the Olive Garden that it was distracting and that the supporting cast was uneven but certainly has its charms, but this experience was all about Leona, a tough, funny, lonely woman who deserves more from life and has set out to grab it. If there is ever serious interest in reviving Do I Hear a Waltz on Broadway (and there probably won’t be unless Sondheim wants to do some serious tinkering), we have found the ideal Leona. In your capable hands, Leona is likable without being sappy or needy. She’s smart but she’s out of her element and a little off balance, especially when she falls for a Venetian antique seller who may or may not be on the up and up. Leon has some considerable defenses around herself, but she also, as we see briefly, a great capacity for joy.

Ms. Skinner, you are in spectacular voice – “Someone Woke Up” and the title song have never sounded so good. I found myself wishing that Sondheim and Rodgers had mustered a great aria for Leona to perform at show’s end that lets us in on the state of her heart and mind as she heads home. In the latter part of Act 2, it’s almost as if the creative team forgot they were creating a musical and focused much more on the play. In the hands of a skilled actor we hardly miss the score (Leona’s drunken breakdown at the party she’s throwing is some serious musical theater drama), but Waltz does end rather with a whimper, which doesn’t quite seem fair to Leona.

As strange as it is, Do I Hear a Waltz? is awfully entertaining, and kudos to director Greg MacKellan for wrestling this beast into such pleasant form. But the best decision of all was to hire such a remarkable leading lady. Thank you, Ms. Skinner, for allowing us such a captivating Waltz.

42nd Street Moon’s Do I Hear a Waltz continues through Oct. 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

PHOTO CREDITS: (top) Emily Skinner as Leona Samish in 42nd Street Moon’s Do I Hear a Waltz? (lower) Skinner and Jonah Broscow as her pint-sized guide, Mauro. Photos by pwophoto.com

SF Playhouse goes into Sondheim’s Woods

Into the Woods 2
Wolves (Ryan McCrary, left, and Jeffrey Brian Adams) meet Little Red Ridinghood (Corinne Proctor) in the woods in San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Into the Woods. Below: The Baker (Keith Pinto) and the Baker’s Wife (El Beh) discover that success in the woods takes two. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Later this year we’re going to get a star-studded, Disney-ized version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, a 1986 musical mishmash of fairy tales, grim realities and realistic ever-afters. It will be fun seeing the likes of Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp singing Sondheim tunes and bringing these tales to life.

But until then, we have real, live people doing this oft-produced show on stage at San Francisco Playhouse and making a strong case for the genius of Sondheim (especially, in this show, his lyrics).

This is a big show in many ways: there’s a 15-member cast, which director Susi Damilano has augmented by one more in the form of a mostly wordless little boy to whom these fairy tales are being told and a panoply of characters, most of whom are efficiently introduced in the thrilling opening number. Some of this size and scope overwhelms this production (especially in some rather messy scene transitions), but comes through most potently are Sondheim’s wonderfully clever lyrics.

There’s some unevenness in the cast, but when the performer clicks with the material, the humor and heart of the story comes shining through. Such is the case with Corinne Proctor as Little Red Ridinghood, as crystal clear an interpretation of the character – part little girl, part sexpot – as you could want. She bridges the worlds of childhood and adulthood effortlessly, and she really gets the jokes.

Also keeping things grounded and fantastical simultaneously is Jeffrey Brian Adams as Cinderella’s Prince. He’s sincere and he’s hilarious and a little bit sad, which is just about perfect. His duet on “Agony” with Ryan McCrary as Rapunzel’s Prince is a show highlight.

Into to the Woods 1

Tim Homsley as Jack (of “and the Beanstalk” fame) gets a nice moment to shine on “Giants in the Sky” and the ever-reliable Maureen McVerry is a hoot, especially in her noveau-riche incarnation once Jack starts bringing stolen loot down the beanstalk from the giants’ castle.

Though a small part Cinderella’s evil stepmother is made memorable in a colorful turn from Bekka Fink, who also lends her lovely vocals to the ghost of Cinderella’s mother (who, in a nice turn, is actually the fairy godmother).

Anchoring the show quite nicely are Keith Pinto as the Baker and El Beh as the Baker’s Wife. Their quest to end a curse and start a family is what ties all the familiar stories together, and the journey of the wife is quite potent. Beh does not come across as the typical fairy tale wife, and that’s fantastic. She seems like a real person with genuine conflicts who is capable of original thought – always a welcome trait in the world of musical theater. Her “Moments in the Woods” is an emotional high point of the darker Act 2, which delves into what happens after “happily ever after” (hint: it’s not happy).

At nearly three hours, Into the Woods can be challenging, even with all its bright (and intriguingly dark) spots. Damilano’s production has its share of slow points, but musical director Dave Dobrusky keeps things rolling with his excellent seven-piece band (using the original orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. And, happily, the rich sound of the orchestra never overwhelms the singers, so the lyrics are out there, front and center, right where they should be.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Susi Damilano and actor El Beh about Into the Woods for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

San Francisco Playhouse’s Into the Woods continues through Sept. 6 at 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Sondheim marries love & lyrics in melodic TheatreWorks revue

Marry Me 3
A.J. Shively is “Him” and Sharon Rietkerk is “Her” in the two-person Stephen Sondheim musical Marry Me a Little, a TheatreWorks production running through June 29 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Tracy Martin

Even Stephen Sondheim’s cast-offs are sturdy enough to carry a show on their own. At least that’s the case with Marry Me a Little, a 1980 revue created by Craig Lucas and Norman René. The show collects odds and ends from Sondheim’s career, including songs cut from some of his big shows (Follies seems to have lost an extraordinary number of good songs), written for one-off projects or salvaged from flops.

The resulting show, using only songs and no dialogue, tells the story of two lonely neighbors on a Saturday night. The original location was New York, but the new TheatreWorks production directed by Sondheim-o-phile Robert Kelley moves the action to San Francisco and takes every opportunity to have its attractive actors shed clothing. In other words, it’s aiming to be young, hip and sexy, and by and large, that tact succeeds.

I reviewed the show for the San Francisco Chronicle:

It’s hard to imagine two more appealing performers than Sharon Rietkerk and A.J. Shively. If there’s amplification in the theater, it’s so subtly and expertly done (by sound designer Brendan Aanes) that it seems we’re simply hearing two beautiful voices and a piano. Every lyrical nuance is clear but unforced, and that’s a supremely satisfying way to experience Sondheim.

So often musical revues are just cheesy excuses to sing a lot of songs, but “Marry Me a Little” is distinguished by its notable lack of cheese. Director Robert Kelley never lets the naturalism of single people going about their Saturday night business get forced or silly, even when the song “Pour Le Sport” turns into a his-and-her round of video game golf.

Read the entire review here.

One thing I didn’t get to say in the review was how effectively set designer Bruce McLeod incorporates musical director/pianist William Liberatore into the set. Liberatore actually “plays a role” as a neighbor who happens to love Sondheim and plays his songs continually (how convenient!). We see him in his home at the piano surrounded by Sondheim show posters (Merrily We Roll Along, Sweeney Todd), and right about at eye level on the wall next to the piano, is a framed photo of Sondheim himself. Such a nice touch.

TheatreWorks’ Marry Me a Little continues through June 29 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.