Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bennett Wood's loving celebration of Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim is an undisputed overlord of the modern theatrical musical, having shaped contemporary views of the artform and winning scads of awards in the process (he's won more Tony Awards for composing than anyone else).

He also remains controversial -- praised and accused for his take on romance and relationships, melodies and style, attitude and innovation.

Theatre Memphis recently concluded a fine production of "A Sondheim Celebration" that presented more than two dozen songs presented by eight of the area's top singers. Presented in the intimate Next Stage, the revue was done back in November and restaged for TM's Summer Showcase Series this month.

Bennett Wood conceived and directed the show. An unabashed admirer of Sondheim's works, Wood found helming this show to be a labor of love. Gary Beard was musical director and pianist, meaning the enterprise had an assured touch throughout and great attention to detail. One addition was that of cellist Stephen Short, an inspired choice that lent considerable color and depth to the performances.

The eight singers are all highly accomplished veterans of TM productions: Justin Asher, Jonathan Christian, Rob Hanford, Lydia Hart, Jude Knight, Joe Lackie, Debbie Litch and Ann Sharp.

All are solid as soloists or in a group, and as warblers as well as conveying the essence of Sondheim's lyrics. The sensibility was, of course, largely about bittersweet love, with special attention to the bitter. Sondheim has been reviled for not being romantic, but on the contrary, he is highly romantic — just with large helpings of reality.

The cast of "A Sondheim Celebration" brought great expressiveness to those sentiments on a stylishly simple set with minimal choreography, but with a rich, rueful delivery.

As for the controversy that Sondheim stirs up, you could see both sides of the arguments throughout the performances. In a single number you might find music that careens between trite and inventive, even as the lyrics spin out some beautifully expressed angst about love. And no, there's not much the composer does that will leave you whistling, but it will keep you thinking.

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