Lauren McCombs, Debbie King-Raque, Erin Jump, & Jennifer Poliskie in Sondheim on Sondheim. Photo courtesy CenterStage.

Sondheim on Sondheim

Conceived by James Lapine
Directed by John R. Leffert
Music Director Jennifer Johanningsmeier

Review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents copyright © 2017 Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

There are few composers/music writers that I enjoy as much as I do Stephen Sondheim. Having a storied career that is approaching the 65-year mark is nothing short of spectacular. His lyrics are introspective and often timeless, and we often see a side of ourselves within them.

Longtime collaborator James Lapine (Into the Woods) conceptualized this showcase that is currently being produced at CenterStage at the Jewish Community Center. I thought, hmm, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine with another project should be entertaining. The show ran on Broadway in 2010 for only a couple of months and to a wide ranging scope of opinion about it. Some of the reviews were glowing while others were not.

Let us talk about CenterStage’s presentation.

All of the components seem positioned to provide a delicious evening of musical goodness, with some smattering of dialogue from the master himself thrown in for good measure. I am sorry to say that it fell a bit flat.

Let’s start with movement about the stage. I understand that this show is not a high intensity, dance-filled spectacle, but having the singers climb what looked like steps that were built unevenly, and maybe a bit high, throughout the evening, was just boring and often did not serve a purpose. Now, on the other hand, when some actual choreography was put into place, as simple as it may have been, it was effective, even if it didn’t actually happen until the second act.

While the steps seemed a bit daunting, the scenic design was visually attractive. While there was not much color, save for the red backlit screen on the wall upstage, I liked the marbling look about the steps. The erection of a video screen did not distract from the overall scenery, being essential to the show, and was at a good angle for all of the audience to be able to see it.

There were some moments that I wasn’t sure if lack of light was ordered by lighting designer Theresa Bagan for effect, or merely missed lighting cues by the operator. Unfortunately that happened more than once. Aaron Thompson’s sound design was pretty good. Another issue of the evening was the occasional lack of volume from the singers’ microphones.

Because I have not seen this production before, I am going to hold my tongue on what I thought may have been some technical problems with it. What I will say is, if the video that was being projected and shared last night is the exact same that goes along with the original show, then I can understand some of the negative feedback. It really is a neat idea to intersperse a dialogue with Mr. Sondheim, sometimes as he is addressing the audience via camera, or an interview was spliced into the video and then cut away to his songs, but where the musical cues were in the video cut offs didn’t really correspond or jibe with what was being talked about. Not to mention, there were a few video clips where the image is manipulated and it feels like you are watching an interview through a thermomagnetic reader. Also, musical cues were often placed where Mr. Sondheim was about to expound upon a topic and then the topic is never to return again.

But the music? Ah yes, the music. We know the big show stoppers: “Epiphany” from Sweeney Todd, “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George. Luckily for us we got to hear some of his lesser known pieces such as “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along, “Is This What You Call Love” from Passion, and “So Many People” from Saturday Night. The first two are a bit more familiar (Pandora Productions presented Passion a couple of years ago), but what about Saturday Night? All part of Mr. Sondheim’s early years. We got to hear the hits and the flops throughout the evening.

Featuring talented singers, Debbie King-Raque, Andrew Newton, Jennifer Poliskie, Lauren McCombs, Erin Jump, Josh Gilliam, Andrew Hughes and Russ Dunlap, many of whom have established careers in music/theater in the Louisville area. While there were some times that blending and intonation were in heated contention with one another, these professionals did their best to get back to harmonization and tonality. For the most part I believe solos were well chosen for the individual voices, especially Erin Jump’s “Do I Hear a Waltz,” Josh Gilliam’s “Being Alive,” and Debbie King-Raque’s version of one of my personal favorites, “Send in the Clowns.” But perhaps the best performance of the evening came from Andrew Newton who is a marvel, in his interpretation of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” from Merrily We Roll Along.

Under the direction of Jennifer Johanningsmeier, the small, but mighty orchestra started a little iffy but got into its groove fairly quickly. I would caution checking the pitches every once in a while.

Yeah, there were some technical problems and vocally the singers would get a little lost but with a group that is as talented as the whole of the company is, well, doggone it, there indeed is a “Happily Ever After.”

Bravi Tutti!

Sondheim on Sondheim

May 11- 21, 2017

Center Stage at the Jewish Community Center
3600 Dutchmans Lane
Louisville, KY 40205


AnnetteAnnette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.