Metro Weekly

Review: Signature’s sublime ‘Simply Sondheim’ is as impactful as it is enjoyable

Signature Theatre's first production in 2021 is an imaginatively filmed, Sondheim-driven stage revue

simply sondheim
Simply Sondheim — Photo: Christopher Miller

Halfway through Simply Sondheim comes a one-two punch of timely resonance, and in a way that’s far more impactful today than when the musical revue premiered at Signature Theatre six years ago. Sagely leading the group number “Now You Know” from Merrily We Roll Along, Awa Sal Secka might as well be commiserating with all those whose views about life, people, or society writ large have become appreciably less optimistic as a result of the pandemic and the related social ills it has exacerbated. “Alright, now you know: life is crummy,” Secka sings briskly. “I mean, big surprise; people love you and tell you lies. Bricks can tumble from clear blue skies.” The moral? “So life lays you low; learn to live with it…. It’s called letting go your illusions, and don’t confuse them with your dreams.”

The song is even more potent coming as it does as an immediate rejoinder to the lament “Something Just Broke,” which opens Act Two. This group number from Assassins, featuring responses from everyday Americans in the wake of the assassination of President Kennedy, evokes the feelings many had in response to the insurrection at the Capitol last month. “Something bewildering occurred, made me wonder who we are,” Donna Migliaccio sings plaintively, as others around her express shock or plead for a quick fix, knowing full well no such thing is possible.

An impressive and celebratory retrospective, Simply Sondheim features over 30 songs drawn from 13 musicals written over the course of 50 years by Stephen Sondheim, who will turn 91 next month. The Tony-winning regional theater has staged more of Sondheim’s work than any other American theater — 30 productions and counting and kicks off its 2021 all-digital season with this revue that Eric Schaeffer, the company’s co-founder and former artistic director, conceived of in 2015 with Broadway music director David Loud, who is responsible for the show’s impeccable vocal arrangements.

Marking Signature’s first full production during the pandemic, Simply Sondheim (★★★★☆) was filmed over the course of three days in November, in adherence to social distancing protocols that governed the movement and positioning of its cast as well as its 16-member orchestra, the latter spread out across risers where the audience usually sits.

There’s nothing static or stilted about the camerawork on display — a simply filmed theatrical concert this is not. Justin Chiet led a team of camera operators who are never seen — thanks in part to Adam Honoré’s deceptively simple lighting design — yet are always hovering close to the action and ready to react by moving in, out, or around, or by shifting focus altogether. With editing by James Gardiner, this imaginative approach to filmmaking creates a visual energy that complements the staged show in ways similar to last year’s Disney+ filmed rendering of Hamilton.

simply sondheim
Simply Sondheim — Photo: Christopher Miller

Matthew Gardiner serves as the director and choreographer, recruiting a cast of 12 singers, all powerhouse vocalists in their own right and all given chances to shine as they weave in and out of songs, characters, and musicals in round-robin fashion. Paul Scanlan and Bobby Smith return from the original production, along with Migliaccio, who offers up the kookiest Mrs. Lovett imaginable with her performance of “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd. The 1970 Tony-winning musical Company accounts for more than its fair share of highlights, including “Getting Married Today” by Tracy Lynn Olivera, the ace performer with the exhilarating voice who tackles the notoriously difficult, manic patter song with characteristic aplomb, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a wry and roaring showstopper which becomes positively woozy in Emily Skinner’s delivery, and “Being Alive,” Company‘s closing anthem that Norm Lewis makes even more invigorating by virtue of his rich, resonant baritone.

As much time as you might spend debating and deliberating over the show’s best performers and greatest moments, ultimately it’s all beside the point. Simply Sondheim, to put it purely and simply, is a showcase of its namesake’s skill and showmanship, particularly in regards to his musical and lyrical prowess. There’s no narration or book or really any dialogue to speak of that gets in the way of that, or that attempts to tie things together in any explicitly cohesive way. There’s simply no need.

Now streaming on Marquee TV through March 26. Tickets for a 72-hour stream are $35. Visit www.SigTheatre.org.

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @ruleonwriting.

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