Amazing Journey

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Putting it Together
by Marc Miller

Performing in the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration offers top musical theater talents both risks and rewards, as they tackle the challenging works of the legendary composer and lyricist.

To paraphrase the current "It's not TV, it's HBO" ad campaign: It's not a musical, it's Sondheim. As the Kennedy Center's ambitious Sondheim Celebration -- six major stagings in two cycles of repretory, all of them squeezed into three and a half months - merrily rolls along the festival's all star casts seem equally excited and anxious about interpreting such well honed material under the spotlight.

"I try not to think about the pressure," Rebecca Luker, who plays Clara to Judy Kuhn's Fosca and Michael Cerveris' Giorgio in the first major revival of Sondheim's Passion (July 19 through August 23). It's her first full-length Sondheim assignment since her apprentice days at Michigan Opera Theater in the early 1980's, when she played Anne in A Little Night Music. "I keep telling myself, it's only 15 performances -- very important performances, but only 15. We have almost as much rehearsal as you do for a Broadway show, and we'll be in D.C. and stepped in Sondheim -- I'm looking forward to seeing the other shows. So I'm not that terrified-- yet."

and for Complex roles, technically demanding music and a swarm of Sondheim aficionados descending upon Washington - the challenges of performing the musicals are many for Luker and Kuhn and for Raul Esparaza, who accepted the daunting double duty of singing Georges in Sunday in the Park with George and Charley in Merrily We Roll Along. And the material is almost impossibly gratifying. But that doesn't seem to faze this bunch.

"I always said, my career will not be complete if I don't do a Sondheim show," says Kuhn, a three time Tony nominee (She Loves Me, Chess and Les Miserables) who is surprisely, making her Sondheim debut. "His lyrics are so extraordinary and full of character and poetry and then the music is so complex."

For Luker, the challenges begin with the technical aspects: "Passion is very operatic, and I love that about it. But it's pretty hard. I'm a musician and I love to read music but I can't really play this stuff on the piano, so I've been sight-reading and getting used to it. It's very lush and difficult. So beautiful though. Beautiful, lyrical and gorgeous.

Esparza, an up-and-coming musical theater performer who gravitates naturally to dark and difficult parts (Cabaret off Broadwy tick, tick, BOOM) says he's having the time of his life. "I don't want to sound gushy or sentimental," he says "but I'm happier than I've ever been in a role before. The last time I felt nearly this good was in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. And Stoppard and Sondheim have a lot in common. The material is just incredibly rich and layered. You dig and you dig and you never stop finding insights."

In playing Sunday's Georges, he acknowledges, he did have a role model, not so much Mandy Patinkin, who originated the part, but Sondheim himself. "Oh Georges is very much Stephen," Esparza says. "Brilliant, a loner with a very particular way of working. Everybody wants to get into his head and can't and it frustrates them. Then in ACT II he's somewhat disgusted with having to play the game to get his work shown." He adds that Charley Kringas, the idealistic young lyricist he plays in Merrily, has a bit of the Master in him too. "Charley refuses to comprimise and it sets him apart from the show-business people he comes into contact with. Stephen is not one to comprimise."

Esparza was aware of Patinkin's Sunday performance, readily accessible on video and audio. "It's true, Mandy's all over the script," he says. "It's geared to his intensity and technical prowess, which are astonishing. But (director) Eric Schaeffer was determined that this production would be different and I decided I'm going on my own journey." Building the performance, he says, was a process of crafting the technical aspects first, then probing Seurat's complicated mind, and finally "sort of letting the skeleton fall away. Once you've absorbed the essentials, it frees you up to respond to the material more emotionally."

Kuhn and Luker are playing parts in Passion that were originally in 1994 by, respectively, Tony-winning Donna Murphy and Tony nominated Marin Mazzie. "There are ghosts all over these shows," says Kuhn, but she's not that worried about comparisons: "Donna's a friend of mine and she was extraordinary but my Fosca is nothing like hers. I've done other shows where I suppose I risked comparison, like She Loves Me. But you can't think about that stuff-- it would freeze you up if you did. And the other thing about the festival: There's always pressure no matter what you do, but there's less commercial pressure here. You do your best work and no one's going to close the show on you."

"Maybe one of the good things about doing one of Sondheim's more recent shows is that there's not so much legend attached to it," says Luker. "Although everyone remembers Marin's performance fondly, I have a very different sound and look. And this will be a very different production, according to Eric (Schaeffer). For one thing, I'm not going to be topless! (As with Marin's performance.) I guess there's more than one way to skin a cat."

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