“Sondheim on Sondheim,” which is currently at Silhouette Stages, is full of surprises. For one, Stephen Sondheim, regarded as one of the most important figures in 20th century musical theater, is posthumously one of the stars of the show. His songs are interspersed with videos of the composer and lyricist. The stories give a personal view into a Sondheim behind the scenes—one whose life involves a famous mentor (Oscar Hammerstein), less than loving parents, and not finding love until late in life—and so many musicals.
The show will be remembered as combining a cast of amazing actors with the songs and personal life of an amazing composer.
The stage contains the orchestra and a black background of twinkling lights and spiral chandeliers (props go to Lighting Designer TJ Lukacsina). Pit conductor Paige Rammelkamp skillfully leads the orchestra, which can be challenging with Sondheim’s songs (and numerous sound effects). A moving platform, thanks to Scenic Designer Stephen Foreman, often brings the eight actors in and out of the scenes, which adds some visual interest.
Sondheim is surprisingly funny in his projected videos, and the cast enhances this humor with their performances. All of the actors have strong voices and look elegant in their evening dresses and tuxedos. Their timing, with the interspersed videos, should be commended along with the harmonies and difficult arrangements on some of the songs. Stephen Foreman’s choreography compliments the show without being overly showy.
Although some of the songs in the show are quite familiar (like “Comedy Tonight” from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” or “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story”), others never even made it into the musicals. While interesting, I personally enjoyed the songs that were more familiar. The show features 19 of Sondheim’s musicals including “Follies,” “Assassins,” “Gypsy,” “Into the Woods,” and “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Josh Mooney displays his evil side in “Epiphany” when Sweeney Todd becomes an avenging monster. Matt Wetzel shows how the friendship with his songwriting partner went wrong in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” complete with plenty of humorous sound effects. AnnaBelle Lowe, Matt Wetzel, and Tommy Malek are hysterical as they sing about the ups and downs of show business in “Opening Doors,” the only song that is autobiographical according to Sondheim.
The first act holds your attention more than the second with the exception of “Children will Listen” from “Into the Woods” and “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music” which come after Sondheim tells the heartbreaking story of his unloving mother. You can see how Sondheim’s sadness inspired these touching and emotional songs.
Sondheim remarks that he isn’t all about the shiny, happy songs—he likes his characters to have depth. In fact, they’re often considered ‘neurotic.’ Sondheim’s lyrics and melodies will be remembered for their emotion, humor, and uniqueness. The show will be remembered as combining a cast of amazing actors with the songs and personal life of an amazing composer.
Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Adult language and themes.
“Sondheim on Sondheim” runs through June 18, 2023 at the Slayton House Theater, Wilde Lake Village Center, 10400 Cross Fox Lane, Columbia, MD 21044. For more information and tickets, go online. In-person ticket sales start two hours before each performance.