Review: MacEwan University Presents ‘Sondheim on Sondheim’ | By Nikita-Kiran Singh

For decades, composer Stephen Sondheim has entertained audiences with an impressive repertoire which includes West Side Story, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods.  MacEwan University’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Communications celebrates his work in the production of Sondheim on Sondheim, a revue combining the art of storytelling with captivating music.

The show begins on a strong note as the entire cast takes part in the lively vocal overture, leaving a powerful first impression. The elegant and striking costume design is faithful to Sondheim’s music and lyrics, reflecting the characters’ bold, unconventional and dynamic dispositions. The strength of the vocals is complemented by the empowering orchestra whose music drives the show.

The uniqueness of Sondheim on Sondheim lies in its format.  The show is comprised of Sondheim’s best songs interspersed with videos of Sondheim himself explaining the creative inspiration behind his work. Particularly memorable is a clip of Sondheim challenging the notion that the “neurotic” nature of his lyrics is problematic. He emphasizes the value of characters whose lives aren’t entirely pleasant as they paint a truer picture of life. A performance of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” immediately follows, comically conveying Sondheim’s insight into the human spirit.

Because the show is driven by its music, there are noticeable lulls when the music is not particularly interesting, especially towards the end of Act I.  This is no fault of the performers, but a stylistic flaw in the format of the show itself.  The weaker song selections are especially noticeable when following noteworthy performances. Given that over two dozen songs are performed, the production would have been stronger if certain segments were excluded.

Nonetheless, the strength of the show lies in its incredibly talented cast and orchestra.  Highlights of the show include Jarrett Krissa’s expressive performances of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and “Being Alive”, conveying his versatility as a performer.  Solos of Brittany Hinse performing “Take Me to the World”; Josh Thayer asking “Is This What You Call Love?”; and Karina Cox singing “In Buddy’s Eyes” are soulful and engaging.  The finale is particularly poignant and gives a strong finish to a delightful show.

Like Sondheim’s musicals, the show explores an extensive array of emotions, and the cast delivers on this demanding task.  Solos, duets, and group performances offer a multitude of musical experiences within one remarkable production.  The pathos of Sondheim’s personal narrative coupled with the powerful voices delivering his story make Sondheim on Sondheim an exceptional theatre experience.

Sondheim on Sondheim will be performed at the MacEwan University Theatre Lab in the Centre for Arts and Communications until April 2.

Banner courtesy of Bottom Line Productions.

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