Chicago Theatre Review
Stephen’s in the House
Sondheim on Sondheim – Porchlight Music Theatre
For the musical theatre aficionado and devoted fan of Stephen Sondheim, America’s premier composer and lyricist, Nick Bowling’s brilliantly directed and performed production is a melodious dream come true. Part informational, eye-opening multimedia presentation, part entertaining, live performance, this exquisite production features eight of Chicagoland’s finest actor singing many of the master’s hits and misses penned over a 62-year career. At the very center of this production is musical director and accompanist, Austin Cook, in the guise of Mr. Sondheim himself. Wrapped within Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s beautiful two-story Manhattan study, his setting is dominated by Mr. Cook’s baby grand and is flanked by walls of memorabilia-stuffed bookshelves, assorted chairs and settees, and enveloped by a winding staircase that leads to a second level. The whole package radiates style and finesse.
This revue, one of many around that showcase Stephen Sondheim’s music, is unique in that the songs are interspersed with prerecorded film clips of the composer sharing insights, memories and bon mots from his impressive career. These have been culled from decades of talk show interviews and are presented through Mike Tutaj’s video projections and Christopher M. LaPorte’s sound design. So, not only is the audience treated to an evening of incredible music, but they come away with a unique understanding of the genius behind Sondheim’s art. The original, excellent Broadway production, conceived and directed by Sondheim’s frequent collaborator Jame Lapine, played at Manhattan’s Studio 54 for a limited run in 2010 and won the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical Revue. Chicago once again trumps New York with this peerless presentation.
Filled with 40 of Sondheim’s best-known, lesser-known and unknown compositions, Porchlight’s production is a more moving and insightful visit with the man and his music. Director Nick Bowling, choreographer Emily Ariel Rogers and, especially, musical director Austin Cook have reinvented Roundabout Theatre’s multimedia production. True, the original revue gave audiences a rare opportunity to see and hear Broadway veteran Barbara Cook, as well as to enjoy the excellent musical stylings Norm Lewis, Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat. However, several of Chicago’s very own top musical theatre performers are featured in this production, and the end result is perfection.
Let it be said here and now that this eight-member cast is brimming with talent. Each actor/singer brings his best to this production, not only working together incredibly as an ensemble, but individually demonstrating heartfelt solo moments that scream, “Star!” First, Rebecca Finnegan, seen recently as Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” proves once more that she’s the undisputed Queen of Chicago Musical Theatre. There’s nothing Ms. Finnegan can’t do and she brings it all to this production. One of her very special moments, among so many, is her soulful, “In Buddy’s Eyes.” She follows that number with the sincerely heartfelt, “Children Will Listen,” soon trumped by Ms. Finnegan’s very poignant rendition of “Send in the Clowns.” By the end of this song, tears and muted sniffles could be heard throughout the audience.
Another awe-inspiring performance comes from the incomparable James Earl Jones II. This actor’s got the voice of an angel, with buckets of charisma and charm to boot. In every number, Mr. Jones thrills, not only with his incredible range, but in the way he imbues each and every moment with precision and honesty. Mr. Jones’ performance of “Epiphany” from “Sweeney Todd,” is but one example, and his duet with Ms. Finnegan brings down the house. Matthew Keffer, not only a skilled actor but a gorgeous singer, also lends his beautiful voice to this production. From Bailiwick’s recent “Wild Party,” to BoHo’s wonderful “Spitfire Grill,” this young actor has shared his artistry all over this city. But, as exemplified by his performance of “Being Alive,” someone needs to think seriously about casting this terrific performer as Bobby in a production of “Company.” Handsome, multitalented and bursting with star-quality, Mr. Keffer is simply magnificent. Just one of his many electrifying moments comes when, lounging on a chaise, Matthew becomes Stephen Sondheim, wistfully interpreting his “Finishing the Hat.”
The remaining cast includes the glorious beauty and vocal power of Adrienne Walker, who left her mark as Shug Avery in Mercury’s “The Color Purple.” The statuesque Ms. Walker is a standout in everything she performs here, but her finest moment comes from her portrayal of Fosca, in the revue’s segment from “Passion,” featuring a heartfelt interpretation of “Loving You.” Emily Berman and Amelia Hefferon are a delightful young Phyllis and Sally in “Waiting for the Girls,” from “Follies,” and Ms. Hefferon also impresses with her two numbers from “Merrily We Roll Along.” Yando Lopez, remembered as the Bolero Singer in Paramount’s “In the Heights,” is sweet and endearing, demonstrating a lovely voice, particularly in his “Losing My Mind.” Stephen Rader, seen recently in TimeLine’s “The Normal Heart,” lends his musical talent to many numbers, as well.
Certainly this winter’s brought some excellent theatrical offerings for Chicagoans willing to brave the cold, but Nick Bowling’s extraordinary celebration of all things Sondheim is at the top. Chic, mellifluous, and brimming with warmth and honesty, this is a production that shouldn’t be missed. Starring the magnetic, accomplished pianist, singer and music director Austin Cook, Torchlight’s revue sports a talented cast of first-rate actors performing a bounty of wonderful songs. This show, which allows audiences to not only enjoy Sondheim’s work, but to actually meet the composer himself through years of videoed archival interviews, is an absolute must-see.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 6-March 15 by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-777-9884 or by going to www.porchlightmusictheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.