Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Stage

Review: 'Sondheim on Sondheim' at Freefall captures a genius in song

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ST. PETERSBURG

To paraphrase Woody Allen, what can you say about Stephen Sondheim that he hasn't already said much better about himself?

Allen was talking about bombastic sportscaster Howard Cosell. The dilemma, though, is a familiar one to anybody trying to explain someone else's hugeness. Director James Lapine answered that challenge concerning Sondheim with a Broadway revue, Sondheim on Sondheim, and it's a pretty successful way of doing it.

Now Freefall Theatre has taken up the challenge of doing justice to one of the most astounding popular composers of all time. In Sondheim on Sondheim, performers sing selections from 18 musicals, hopping across boxes decorated with scribbled notes and lyrics. Between songs, the composer chats at length on video about his rocky childhood, career choices, relationships and writing rituals. This dimension, plus tons of added clips from Sondheim's public life, gives the show more depth than two previously staged anthologies, Side by Side by Sondheim (1976) and Putting it Together (1999).

This is a delightful show. It combines some stellar singing with top-tier acting in the likes of Ann Morrison, whose Broadway debut in Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along won her a Theatre World Award. There is a range of repertoire but it all works.

The best part is what we learn about Sondheim. Reclining on the sofa — just as he writes, with Blackwing pencils and a shot glass nearby — the composer narrates his parents' divorce when he was 10 years old; his subsequent emotional bond with a friend's father, lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein, who taught him how to write a song; and a bit of his inner life and the wounds he still carries. Sondheim also gives the inside story on some significant business decisions, such as deciding to take Hammerstein's advice and write the lyrics for West Side Story.

Director Chris Crawford has cast eight singers so as to bring out the best. Highlights include Larry Alexander and Floral City native Kissy Simmons (who played Nala on Broadway in The Lion King) in Loving You (from Passion); Simmons in Ah, but Underneath (Follies); Freefall artistic director Eric Davis singing Epiphany (Sweeney Todd); Nick Lerew in Franklin Shepard, Inc. (Merrily We Roll Along); and Morrison in Send in the Clowns (A Little Night Music).

And really, that's just scratching the surface.

Some players take on multiple roles. Davis designed the set. Resident company member Kelly Pekar acquitted herself well as a cast member and designed costumes. Michael Raabe directs the orchestra and plays keyboards. All of those elements combined for a most enjoyable evening, one that gives a glimpse into the mind of a creative genius, throwing in some laughs along the way.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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