James Lapine Celebrates His Longtime Friend’s Genius
by Robert M. Gardner
At Contra Costa Civic Theatre, “Sondheim on Sondheim” emerges as a testament to the genius of composer Stephen Sondheim. James Lapine, his collaborator and friend, conceived and documented this unique Broadway combination of video interviews and Sondheim songs.
Director Marilyn Langbehn does a spectacular job of holding our interest in the Sondheim interviews with stellar performances by eight dancer/singers. Interwoven with the music, the video interviews, from early to late in Sondheim’s career, show how he changed and evolved.
In a riveting video, Sondheim tells us about a handwritten note he received from his mother before her heart operation. She states that her only regret was having given birth to him. Considering how Sondheim’s words have brought so much comfort and love to so many, her words shock us. And we begin to listen for a tinge of irony and melancholy in his songs.
On the positive side, this estrangement led his mother to send him over to their neighbors, the Oscar Hammerstein family. With Hammerstein as friend and teacher, Sondheim learned to write music as a teenager. Hammerstein encouraged him to find his own style, so Sondheim’s songs are often dark—rather than hummable.
The singer/dancers, a multi-talented team of talented vocalists, are dressed in elegant white gowns and white formal suits. They take us on a whirlwind tour of Sondheim classics and some of his flops, too, revealing that his road has not always been smooth.
Some songs are hard to recognize without the costumes to help set the scene. With over two dozen selections, we are treated to a broad range of Sondheim’s creations. We get to hear and see so many wonderful songs: “Love Is in the Air,” “Take Me to the World,” “The Wedding Is Off,” “Is This What You Call Love?” and “Send in the Clowns”—so many hits that resonate with Sondheim fans.
At the heart of this musical is the orchestra under the direction of keyboard virtuoso Armando Fox, onstage and conducting as the dynamic octet acts, dances, and sings. The singers—Steven Barrett, Faustino Cadiz, Matt Gibson, Kate Huizinga, Alexis Lane Jensen, LaMont Ridgell, Brenna Sammon, and Susan Tonkin—sweep across the stage, dramatizing each song with clever steps and harmonies.
Each performer puts their own style and personality into the songs. Huizinga excels with some soaring solos, as well as anchoring the chorus with her tight harmonies.
When the ensemble attempted complex harmonies and would slightly miss, I put it down to opening night. As the show progressed, their voices blended, and I found myself transported by the ethereal experience of well sung close harmony.
“S-on-S” tugs at our hearts, giving more meaning to the touching “Send in the Clowns.” Sondheim’s dry wit and mischievous smile remind us that his life has been a bittersweet journey.
Well worth a trip to El Cerrito to see the Master and his work at the cozy and welcoming Contra Costa Civic Theatre.
“Sondheim on Sondheim”—music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, conceived & directed on Broadway by James Lapine, directed by Marilyn Langbehn, musical direction by Armando Fox, choreography by Anne Yumi Kobori, at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, El Cerrito, California. Info: CCCT.org – to September 17, 2023.
Cast: Steven Barrett, Faustino Cadiz, Matt Gibson, Kate Huizinga, Alexis Lane Jensen, LaMont Ridgell, Brenna Sammon, and Susan Tonkin.
Banner photo: Cast sings “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, with Sondheim video above. Photos: Ben Krantz