Review of Sondheim on Sondheim at the Sargent Conservatory of Theatre Arts

    The cast radiated infectious energy when its members burst onto the stage for Sondheim on Sondheim in the recent staging by the Sargent Conservatory of Theater Arts at Webster University. The sense of a special occasion never left this superb production.

    Sondheim on Sondheim is a musical revue conceived and directed on Broadway in 2010 by James Lapine. The show is a celebration of Stephen Sondheim and his work, interleaving dozens of Sondheim songs with his reflections on his life and art. Some of the comments were in new and archival videos featuring Sondheim himself. Others were spoken by cast member Mitch Holland, who could barely contain his pleasure in the assignment. Later, Holland sensitively interpreted “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George.

    The score includes a mix of well-known and unfamiliar works. “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story was not performed in its original form but in an arrangement for a quartet whose rapture commanded attention. The singers were Sarah Dao, Rebecca Hartman, Joseph Oliveri, and Phillip Solheim.

    Nicolette Sigur interpreted two much-admired numbers with distinction: “In Buddy’s Eyes” from Follies and “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music. Jayson Heil was a menacing figure in the title character’s “Epiphany” from Sweeny Todd.

    Among the rarities was “Ah, But Underneath,” which was written for the London opening of Follies to accommodate a nondancer in one of the leads. Marisa Spahn was a persuasive advocate for the number, with support from Ryan Douglass, Collin Milfort, and Joseph Oliveri.

    The unfamiliar songs from Merrily We Roll Along included “Now You Know” and “Opening Doors,” both impressively sung: the first by Ally Giard, the second by Eleanor Hardwick, Collin Milfort, and Joseph Oliveri. “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” was compelling in Joseph Oliveri’s interpretation.

    Another song from Merrily, “Not A Day Goes By,” and “Losing My Mind” from Follies were performed together. The pairing worked beautifully in Sarah Dao and Bryn Smith’s collaboration.

    The show once known as Bounce and now called Road Show provided “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened.” Making its acquaintance was a pleasure thanks to Quinn Spivey, Marisa Spahn, Isaiah Henry, and Phillip Solheim.

    Several of the songs were unfamiliar because they were cut before opening night. Bryn Smith’s performance made a strong case for “Smile, Girls” from Gypsy and supported the explanation that the number was deleted only because it held back the story.

    Two superseded finales for Company preceded the real one in equally impressive performances. Collin Milfort’s “Multitudes of Amys” and Bryce Miller’ “Happily Ever After” led to Tony Merritt II’s “Being Alive.”

    The drama in “The Gun Song” from Assassins was chillingly evoked by Jayson Heil, Tony Merritt II, Courtney Ann Schmitt, Quinn Spivey, and Colby Willis.

    The cast always operated at the highest level of involvement, interpretation, and execution. Credit for this consistency must go to directors Tali Allen and Michael Baxter, assistant music director Caleb McCaroll, and acting coach Rayme Cornell. The atmosphere for a special occasion was established by Fallon Podrazik’s scenic design, Dorathy Lee Johnston’s costumes, Charlotte Seidensticker’s wigs and makeup, Jonathan Scully’s lighting, Peter Flaherty​’s video, and Thomas White’s sound.

    The show did, in fact, coincide with a special occasion: the Conservatory’s renaming after Webster University’s beloved teacher, department chair, and dean, the late Peter Sargent. The production was a sterling example of the Sargent Conservatory’s work and a splendid tribute to its namesake.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Phillip Hamer