At Signature Theatre in “Simply Sondheim”
Alexandria, VA – If you’ve been longing for an antidote to the ennui developed over 11 months of watching your favorite live musical and theatrical events on Zoom, I’m delighted to say, “I’ve found it!”
Here’s the scoop! For three days in November, Signature Theatre in Shirlington was alive with 12 socially distanced actors/singers, 16 orchestra members, and creative teams all thrilled to be back and putting together the definitive production of Stephen Sondheim’s Simply Sondheim. Signature teamed up with Chiet Productions to film a jam-packed, nearly two-hour production direct from the MAX Theatre, the larger of Signature’s two theatres.
Brilliant lighting, perfect sound (closed captioning available), and extraordinary camera shots give us an illuminated view of the stage and of the actors’ view of the Dress Circle where the musicians set up, all socially distanced and sounding like a full symphony orchestra under music director Jon Kalbfleisch’s expert leadership. The gorgeous lighting and crystal clear sound are courtesy of lighting designer Adam Honoré and sound designer Ryan Hickey.
Marquee TV will bring this pastiche/review of the best of the best of Stephen Sondheim’s songs (he wrote both words and music for all of them) to you on your TV, smartphone, notebook, or computer. It streams from February 2 through March 26, 2021. Marquee TV is an on-demand streaming platform dedicated to global arts and culture.
Matthew Gardiner (associate artistic director) worked with Kelly Crandall d’Amboise (associate director and casting director) to engage 12 seasoned and highly experienced Sondheim interpreters. Those actors/singers include Norm Lewis (Broadway’s Once on This Island and Signature’s First You Dream), Solea Pfeifer (Signature’s Gun and Powder), Conrad Ricamora (Broadway’s The King and I), Emily Skinner (Broadway’s The Cher Show), Nicholas McDonough (Signature’s Grand Hotel), Donna Migliaccio (Broadway’s War Paint), Christopher Mueller (Signature’s Assassins), Katie Mariko Murray (Signature’s Grand Hotel), Tracy Lynn Olivera (Signature’s A Little Night Music), Paul Scanlan (Signature’s La Cage aux Folles), Awa Sal Secka (Signature’s Gun & Powder), and Bobby Smith (Signature’s Light Years). Each of these professionals has multiple shows to choose from as examples of their work, but I was limited to writing about only one or two. Sigh.
This marvelous and diverse cast brings us more than 30 songs from the composer’s rich canon, and while the selections can be sometimes unexpected, many are old favorites. I believe all are worth your valuable time. Did I mention that once you begin watching this production, you have 36 hours to view it over and over? No? Added benefit!
One reason for watching several times could be that amazing Sondheim interpreter, Donna Migliaccio. She sings one of my favorite tunes, The Best Pies in London from Sweeney Todd, with Bobby Smith’s silent but effective presence. Wait ‘til you see Donna slapping around disgusting looking pastry while informing us that perhaps it tastes ghastly because meat is unattainable at that time in London, all the while pointing out that a lot of pussycats are missing from the streets. She closes with, “Them pussycats is quick!”
Time and space don’t let me discuss all my favorite songs and singers in detail, but I must give a shout out to Tracy Lynn Olivera’s I’m Not Getting Married (from Company) with adroit backup singing by Katie and Christopher! I also must say that James Gardiner’s editing for this production was incredibly well done.
Matthew Gardiner’s direction and choreography keep your interest focused while gracefully transitioning from a traditionally sung single piece to perhaps a fantastic mashup of several songs from different shows! The brilliant vocal arrangements are courtesy of David Loud, and Jonathan Tunick supplied the spectacular new orchestrations. The entire presentation was created with special permission from Stephen Sondheim himself. By the way, Signature has produced more Sondheim shows in 30 years than any other theatre in the United States, so they truly know what they are doing!
What else can I tell you? If you do not know or don’t appreciate Stephen Sondheim’s music the way your friends and family do, this is an inexpensive way to immerse yourself in his work! You’ll be glad you did! Or, if nothing else tickles your fancy, with the help of closed captions, you can finally hear/read all the marvelous rhymes from this master of words.
Just listen/read carefully when Katie Mariko Murray sings On the Steps of the Palace from Into the Woods, when Sondheim rhymes these lyrics:
“I’ll just leave him a clue,
For example, a shoe”
“And then see what he’ll do,
Now it’s he and not you, who’ll be stuck with a shoe
In a stew, in the goo
And I’ve learned something, too
Something I never knew
On the steps of the palace!”
Which finally rhymes with malice, nine stanzas earlier! Well, you get the picture. The man’s a genius!
Simply Sondheim Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Co-Conceived by David Loud & Eric Schaeffer, Directed & Choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Streaming February 2 through March 26, 2021 through Marquee TV. Tickets on sale at SigTheatre.org or call the Box Office at 703-820-9771