One of the most significant projects in the history of the American musical theater is almost over and, yes, it has been that good. The Kennedy Center's summerlong Stephen Sondheim Celebration has given theatergoers the chance to process - with wonderment and gratitude - six wildly different musicals by this most self- challenging master of popular entertainment as high art.
Museums can do individual retrospectives. Paintings hang where they are put. Now the Kennedy Center has dared to honor some of the most demanding and thrilling grown-up musicals ever written with fully staged, lavishly dressed productions, presented in fiendishly tricky rotating repertory. The first three - "Company" (1970), "Sweeney Todd" (1979) and his masterwork, "Sunday in the Park With George" (1984) - proved earlier this summer that the preposterously audacious plan was in worthy hands.
What appeared to be half of Manhattan returned to what felt like Camp Sondheim last weekend to connect more of the aesthetic dots and prioritize favorites in the final three: "A Little Night Music" (1973), "Merrily We Roll Along" (1981) and "Passion" (1994). Anyone can quibble with a casting decision here, an interpretation there, and we will.
Overall, however, the festival, directed by Eric Schaeffer, has been unforgettable - a once-in-a- lifetime chance to imagine the Sondheim Repertory Company that a sensible theater world would have created and nurtured years ago.
The earlier visit made "Company" work better than we'd ever seen it. The revelation this past weekend was "Merrily." This has always been Sondheim's near-mythical failure, the one with excruciatingly beautiful, unusually melodic songs that echo beyond its disastrous 16 performances on Broadway.
We did not see last season's hit revival in London, but Christopher Ashley's heartbreaker of a production reminds us why the show has refused to fade away. George Furth's book, an update of a Kaufman and Hart '30s comedy, traces three friendships backward from 1980 to 1955, and, though the time- traveling conceit teeters on the brink of pop-schlock overkill, the characters, finally, feel as rich as their atypically - for Sondheim - melodic music.
One of the smart festival's smartest moves has been to expose major talents in more than one show. Ashley's staging of "Sweeney Todd" was solid and conventional, but his "Merrily" is a restless lark.
Similarly, the challenging young acting force, Raul Esparza, struck some observers - not us - as too withdrawn as George in "Sunday." In "Merrily," he hits more extroverted notes as Charley, the playwright, though never at the expense of Esparza's layers of psychological elegance. Michael Hayden finds the shadows in his soap-opera good looks as Franklin, the composer who sells out his pals and his own ambitions to Hollywood, while Miriam Shor combines bitter-lemon tartness with the sweetness of integrity as Mary, the novelist who descends to the depths of drink and, sigh, criticism.
The book still feels a bit melodramatic at the start. But Ashley and his company make visible the internal lives of these people and make us care about the ethical forks in the roads viewed from the wistfulness of hindsight.
Then again, it is impossible not to care during "Not a Day Goes By," or when Franklin delivers Sondheim's most straightforward rhapsody about making music. When Franklin's producer voices the usual idiocies Sondheim has heard all his career - "There's not a tune you can hum, There's not a tune you go bum-bum-bum- di-dum" - we can hear the vindication.
You want tunes? Sondheim gives tunes, not to mention an entire show of waltzes, in the exquisite "A Little Night Music." Mark Brokaw doesn't froth up the 19th century white-nights Swedish-summer whipped cream. Casting is more uneven here and the chorus isn't up to the demands of the quasi-operetta. Blair Brown, so admired for unfussy honesty, seems an odd choice to play Desiree, the diva who enchants all the men. And, yet, Brown does the impossible - she lifts "Send in the Clowns" out of the jukebox and relocates the quiet, shocked, sophisticated drama in the devastating words.
John Dossett is a find as Fredrick, dashing, baffled husband of Sarah Uriarte Berry's spunky young bride. Natascia Diaz, the libidinous servant, creates a shivering moment in the mock folk tale, "The Miller's Son," and Barbara Bryne - the original mother in "Sunday" and "Into the Woods" - is deliciously dry as Desiree's aging courtesan of a mom.
We had trouble with "Passion" on Broadway and, though Eric Schaeffer's production is at least as strong as was author James Lapine's more formal original, we have even more trouble now. Despite Sondheim's ravishing, leitmotif-driven chamber score, this story of obsessive love remains a self-deluded, overripe bodice-ripper with aspirations. What's meant to be a pure-love declaration of the soul over mere beauty is, instead, an unpleasant story about wallowing obsession and the vanity that comes from self-pitying grandiosity. The cast is terrific, including Michael Cerveris as the soldier torn between Rebecca Luker's beautiful but married ideal and Judy Kuhn's flesh-eating bacteria of a recluse.
As in all six productions,
Derek McLane's imaginative sets and Howell Binkley's lights have shown
the difference between limited budgets and limited imaginations. No
productions are scheduled for New York, and the Oct.21 gala at Avery
Fisher Hall is already sold out. As the song says, but never means,
well, maybe next year.
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