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Unmissable “Sondheim on Sondheim” at Encore Musical Theatre Company (Review) February 6, 2016

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals.
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The educational theater person in me wants to scream “SEE THIS SHOW” for you to better understand what goes into the craft of writing musicals and music for musicals. The Sondheim lover in me wants to scream “SEE THIS SHOW” for the remarkable (and rare) video footage of Sondheim talking about his craft, his colleagues, and his life. The musical theatre lover in me just simply screams “SEE THIS SHOW” because its darn terrific.

“Sondheim on Sondheim” opened at the Encore Musical Theatre Company last night and it is as slick and professional as anything you can expect from them in the excellent season they are having this year. Originally called “Moving On” and later “Opening Doors” the review was reworked and retitled by James Lapine in 2010 for a limited Broadway run (remember all those 80th Birthday celebrations on PBS?). The idea here is that a cast of performers present musical numbers from Sondheim’s 66 year career but the narration (provided vis-a-vis video clips, film clips, and rare television footage) is provided by Sondheim himself. The production uses the Broadway projections.

There is your theater lesson for the day — to learn about Sondheim, go directly to the source. He describes how he writes songs, who taught him, how songs are rewritten, added, and thrown out. An added hilarious bonus is his description of what types of pencils he uses and how to best sharpen them.

Musical Director (and pianist for the evening) Tyler Driskill has done outstanding work with his ensemble cast. He sits at the grand piano (nice!!) in Sarah Tanner’s striking NYC Sondheim’s Living Room set, and is occasionally joined by second off-stage piano as well. When you have such a piano virtuoso as Driskill, its wise to feature him center stage. The wonderful cast is comprised of Peter Crist, Leah Fox, Daniel A Helmer, Lauren Norris, Kelsey Pohl, Thalia V Schramm, Jim Walke and Adam Woolsey.

You will have your favorite moments and they will most likely be different from those sitting near you — because that is how Sondheim works. For me, the stunners of the evening were “Something Just Broke/Gun Song” from Assassins (which Encore will present in June), and “Ah, But Underneath” (a rarely heard gem written for Diana Rigg in the West End production of Follies) which also shows off Matthew Brennan’s understated but slick choreography at its best.

Dressed in muted but stylish clothing (by Sharon Larkey Urick) in blacks, grays, and shades of blue/purple/turquoise the cast works its way through the multiple numbers in solos, duets, and groups over the course of the (too long at 2:45) evening. That length for a review is understandable when you have stars like Barbara Cook on Broadway, but quite frankly just too long when you do not. Still, there isn’t a dull moment in the show, and those video clips are so outstanding you don’t want to miss a word. A nice touch is the new body-mics worn by the cast.

Well-directed by Dan Cooney, the production is simply not to be missed (whether you go for the music, or the videos, or the cast) — you are in for a stylish evening of remarkable musical theater songs.

Very Highly Recommended

Sondheim on Sondheim continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company through February 21st. Tickets at 734-268-6200, their website at theencoretheatre.org or the box office at 3126 Broad Street, Dexter, MI

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