Monday, July 30, 2018

Douglas Messerli | Losing My Mind (on the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble's production of Side by Side by Sondheim)

losing my mind
by Douglas Messerli

Stephen Sondheim, with additional music by Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers, and Jule Styne Side by Side by Sondheim / directed by Dan Fishbach at Los Angeles, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble / the performance I saw with Howard Fox was the matinee on July 29, 2018.

Yesterday, my husband Howard and I attended a performance at Los Angeles’ famed Odyssey Theatre of the 1976 Ned Sherrin musical revue (directed this time around by Dan Fishbach), featuring Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and music, that started out in London and later transferred, with the same British cast, to Broadway, toting up, between the two, rather long runs.
      With a cast of only three singers and a narrator (here Mark D. Kaufmann), it might be described as the perfect musical theater event for smaller and community-based theaters which could feature the local talent, both dramatic (in the case of the narrator) and vocal in the case of the two female and one male singers.
     This small-theater production—produced in a theater that for 49 years has been known for its far more adventurous plays (everything from Beckett to Max Frisch and younger playwrights such as the American John O’Keefe)—did not disappoint. Despite the fact that I might also have attended the surely far more innovative version of Eduardo Machado’s Lyistrata Unbound, being performed in another of the Odyssey mini-theaters at the same hour, I felt that after the slog of daily political news, it might be nice to simply go back in time to Sondheim’s early career, covering the periods when he composed lyrics for other musicians (in this production represented by Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, her father Richard Rodgers, and Jule Styne) as well as several numbers from Company, Anyone Can Whistle, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, and Follies, as well as lesser known works such as the lovely piece from his television musical, Primrose Evening, Pacific Overtures, and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.
     Of course, when younger singers take on songs interpreted by some of the greatest of Broadway legends, even singers of talent—and these performers, Sarah Busic, Chris Kerrigan, and Rachel McLaughlan are definitely singers of talent—there will be, even if unspoken, the inevitable comparisons to Barbara Cook, Elaine Stritch, Dorothy Collins, Alexis Smith, Larry Kert, Chita Rivera—the list goes on.
     These younger stage folk have good voices and great theater pizazz, so why bother to compare them with legends? And they have the advantage in simply being fresh and young, and the ability to express Sondheim masterworks intimately in a new manner. I’ve seen most of Sondheim’s musicals on stage, but this was the first time that I could truly hear all the lyrics, which made pieces like the daffy analysis of the hero of Company by three Andrews Sister’s-like disappointed lovers, belting out “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” legible; no saxophones here, as in the 2006 Broadway revival I saw, to distract you from their piercing criticisms of Bobby.
      There was something so raw about McLaughlan’s and Busic’s tragic love duet, “A Boy Like That,” that it brought tears to my eyes. No dubbing necessary in this production. And if no one can ever match, perhaps, the exquisite shadings of Bernadette Peters’ “Send in the Clowns,” McLaughlan does a wonderful job that makes one hear that near-operatic piece all over again as if for the very first time.
      I believe Chris Kerrigan’s beautiful rendition of “Marry Me a Little” from Company easily matches Raul Esparza’s 2006 version; and who might have thought of a brawny fellow like Kerrigan singing the naughty husband-wife “splitting up” story, “Could I Leave You,” or replacing Charmian Karr’s wistful TV version of “I Remember” (sung late at night in a department store to Anthony Perkins) with a tenor-baritone voice. Both of these and other songs point up what Sondheim usually shoved under the rug, particularly given his remarkable ballads of heterosexual desire and compulsion, that he was gay man—much like the lyricist he often dismissed, Lorenz Hart—who was hiding his own attractions within various heterosexual narrative scenarios. Both of these female-based songs make good sense sung by a male, as do some of the gay and lesbian suggestions played out in a quick summary of 27 other Sondheim songs near the end of the show.
     Although it might be stunning to hear the last recording of the operatic star Licia Albanese, known for her Puccini interpretations, sing “Ah, Paree!” in Sondheim’s Follies in Concert, for the first time ever I comprehended the lyrics as sung by McLaughlan, who also sang a solid rendition of Follies’ “I’m Still Here” that certainly matches and, perhaps, surpasses Carol Burnett’s rather literal rendition on the DVD we own.
     I know, I promised that I was not going to compare. I’d just say, hey, these kids are “Broadway Babies,” even though they’re performing today in LA, who ought to see their names “all over Times Square.”
     I’d go back to this musical revue any day, except I can’t bear to think about hearing their wonderful singing all night long, as I did last night. I need my sleep. But you should go—and often. I will probably return as well, as soon as I can once again “lose my mind.”

Los Angeles, July 30, 2018

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