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Show falls short of the Sondheim promise

Tim Sekuless, Katerina Smalley and Jay Cameron in “A Sonnet for Sondheim”. Photo: Andrew Sikorski

Musical theatre / “A Sonnet for Sondheim”, directed by Lexie Sekuless. At Belconnen Arts Centre, until July 2. Reviewed by BILL STEPHENS

WHEN he died at the end of 2021, at the age of 91, Stephen Sondheim left a remarkable legacy of musicals and songs. 

His ability to create brilliant musicals that explored dark contemporary themes and complicated emotions through words and music was unparalleled and, even in his lifetime, he was celebrated as a master of the art of musical theatre. 

Because the characters in his musicals often examine interior thoughts set to music, his songs demand acting skills as well as fine voices, and can stand alone as complete creations outside the musical for which they were written.

Since his death there has been a wave of shows around the world featuring Sondheim’s songs in revue format to pay tribute and celebrate his legacy. Among these “A Sonnet for Sondheim” is an interesting addition. 

For “A Sonnet for Sondheim”, director Lexi Sekuless weaves sonnets by William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning among songs from Sondheim musicals, among them, “Sunday in the Park with George”, “A Little Night Music”, “Anyone Can Whistle”, “Into The Woods”, the little known “Passion”, plus “Evening Primrose” and “West Side Story” for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics only. 

Surprisingly, because all the publicity images for the show, including the program images, featured glamorous costumes, the production was presented as a rather unruly rehearsal or audition, with the cast wearing decidedly unglamorous rehearsal gear. No design credits are given in the printed program so, apart from Annette Sharp as choreographer and Carl Rafferty listed oddly as “pianist”, rather than as accompanist or musical director, Sekuless was responsible for all other creative decisions as well as performing as a member of the cast.

But “Art isn’t easy” as Sondheim wrote in his song “Putting It Together”. Firstly, it was never clear whether the audience was watching a rehearsal or an audition. 

At one point a singer finished her song with a testy: “Is that what you want?”. It was unclear whether she was directing her remark at the pianist or some unseen director. Another song finished with the singer looking out into the audience as if expecting some sort of confirmation of her performance from a director. 

The five members of the cast – Sekuless, Jay Cameron, Katerina Smalley, Martin Everett and Tim Sekuless – all come with excellent credentials and the format offered the opportunity to showcase them in a range of material. 

However, the rehearsal setting did them no favours because it set up the thought that the performances they offered in the first half were tentative rather than fully rehearsed. It also set up an expectation that the performances in the second half would feature fully realised interpretations. These hopes were dashed when the show resumed after interval with no changes of costumes, setting or performance level. It may have been wiser to dispense with the interval.

Although all are competent singers, it was interesting to note that some seemed more comfortable with the spoken text, and the “A Chorus Line” style introductions in which they introduced themselves. 

Sondheim wrote lyrics that demand attention and need no decoration from the performer. The interpretations that worked best in this show were by those in the show that understood that and let the lyrics work for them. Cameron, Smalley and Everett all understand this and each offered highlights, as did Sekuless herself in a beautifully restrained rendition of “I Remember” from “Evening Primrose”.

He also wrote songs which demand bravura performances. Tim Sekuless offered one of these with his madcap performance of “Buddy’s Blues” from “Follies”, a hideously difficult song that famously defeated Mandy Patinkin. 

Annette Sharp provided another highlight with her witty choreography for “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” from “Company”, which captured exactly the right tone for this song. 

Although it seemed a good idea to include sonnets by other authors, it was not always clear as to their relevance to what Sondheim was saying with his songs. 

It was a mistake to follow the excellent finale choral arrangement of “Sunday” from “Sunday in the Park” with an encore of a choral arrangement of the introspective “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music”. 

Even though it was musically charming, this arrangement masked the lyrics, and detracted from the effect of “Sunday”, which in any case at this performance was spoiled by bad sound balance. 

While she added value with her performances as a member of the cast, Sekuless may have been wiser to concentrate on her directorial responsibilities because there were enough good moments in the show to indicate that if more directorial attention had been paid to the stage picture, sound balance, correcting the varying levels of performance among her excellent cast, the pacing of the show and even making better use of the excellent lighting facilities available in the Belco theatre, “A Sonnet for Sondheim” may have reached the professional level it strived for. 

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2 Responses to Show falls short of the Sondheim promise

Brooke says: July 1, 2022 at 6:37 pm

My experience of this performance was completely different to Bills’s above. I was mesmerized by the joy and fun of this live performance show.

To have such talented singers and an accomplished pianist deliver this playful and upbeat show in Canberra, is our treat. The performance easily takes the audience members along the journey, which is a credit to the writers, directors and producers.

I was refreshingly taken back by the journey that I was taken on with the music that I was unfamiliar with at the start of the show. It was a thought provoking and cheeky reflection of some lessons in life like taking one step forward and thinking it is two steps back, whilst being judged by others.

It was my first time at the new Belco Theatre Centre, which was easy to experience.

Treat yourself to see A Sonnet for Sondheim, to make you laugh and joyfully ponder the story. It is playing until Saturday night.

A fun performance and a tonic all in one!

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Liz Loomes says: July 1, 2022 at 7:17 pm

I can’t agree with Bill on this one, except for the performance of Send In The Clowns – it is so well known the company should have stuck to the traditional presentation, which is full of wistful regret and an attempt to conceal vulnerability.

I found the spoken word intervals mostly well done and they in no way impeded my attention on the songs. All songs were performed (and acted) extremely effectively, the performers making light work of Sondheim’s notoriously difficult scores. I also liked that most were not the standard Sondheim songs with which we are already familiar. The “audition” approach worked perfectly for me, implying that this was not a Sondheim musical, but performers using his material in the hope of BEING in a Sondheim musical!
As for costumes, a small developing company such as that which Lexi Sekuless is trying to create cannot afford over-the-top sets and costumes. I felt more as if I was in a little try-out cabaret somewhere in New York, well and truly off-off Broadway. And I LOVED the fact that the ticket prices reflected this!!!

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