The composer literally looms over Porchlight's polished production in this hybrid revue.
This career retrospective on the legendary composer Stephen Sondheim, who turns 85 next month, distinguishes itself from other such revues by interspersing commentary from Sondheim himself—not onstage but onscreen, via videotaped interviews created for the Broadway production in 2010 along with archival footage from past TV appearances.
It makes for the kind of show that's catnip for connoisseurs, but risks putting off newcomers; in Sondheim on Sondheim's first act, both creator James Lapine (a frequent Sondheim collaborator) and his subject seem to assume we're already familiar with Sondheim's staggering body of work. With the composer's hyperspecific songs, diving in headfirst can be disorienting even with Sondheim providing snippets of career context. Act II, which shapes itself a bit more to Sondheim's bio than his résumé, feels a bit more comfortable.
Yet even Sondheim devotees might feel déjà vu, since Lapine repurposed much of the video footage he collected for this show in Six by Sondheim, the 2013 HBO documentary he also directed. Sondheim is full of delightful anecdotes and self-deprecating insights, but many of his fans who attend Porchlight's Chicago premiere will have already seen and heard them.
Luckily, Nick Bowling's lush production is near-perfect, urbane and witty but also warm; video designer Mike Tutaj expertly incorporates the interview clips and archival photographs, his projections blending seamlessly with Jeffrey D. Kmiec's handsome set. And the numbers are beautifully performed by a charming cast of eight that includes vets like Rebecca Finnegan, James Earl Jones II and Stephen Rader (who delivers a blazing take on Company's "Being Alive").
Some of the younger cast members can come across as auditioning for the roles they're singing—and quite well at that: Matthew Keffer's rendition of "Finishing the Hat" has me ready for his future Sunday in the Park with George. Music director Austin Cook, bearded and outfitted to recall a young Sondheim himself, is a powerful force on the piano at center stage; his performance with young talents Amelia Hefferon and Yando Lopez of "Opening Doors," from Merrily We Roll Along, provides a persuasive case for a full production. It's not easy to play straight man to a composer so revered he gets his name in the title twice. But Porchlight's fantastic cast does the trick.
Porchlight Music Theatre. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Conceived by James Lapine. Directed by Nick Bowling. With Emily Berman, Rebecca Finnegan, Amelia Hefferon, James Earl Jones II, Matthew Keffer, Yando Lopez, Stephen Rader, Adrienne Walker. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.