‘Finishing the Hat: A Tribute to Stephen Sondheim’ at Signature Theatre by Eric Denver

On December 11th, an article by James Gardiner and his cast of Putting It Together: A Tribute to Stephen Sondheim from George Mason University was posted on DCMetroTheaterArts. In it, they talked about the songs they would be performing at the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center on December 12th and at Signature Theatre on December 17th. Tonight, at Signature Theatre, I was honored to witness this talented group of young performers as they personally interpreted some of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest songs.

I had the opportunity to ask Director James Gardiner why he titled tonight’s performance Finishing the Hat: A Tribute to Stephen Sondheim. (“Finishing the Hat’ is a song from Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park With George). James explained that as an adjunct professor of theater at George Mason University, he felt each of these students was “in process” of learning and discovering his/her talents and capabilities, very similar to the themes of the songs they were singing.

There were ten talented George Mason students: Brittany Martz (who unfortunately was ill tonight and did not participate);Margaret and Melissa Berkowitz;Julie Keyes;Jacob Lash;Matthew Lincoln-Bugg;Rafael Medina;Alexandra Bunger-Pool;Ruthie Rado; and Collin Riley – who stepped into the footlights. 

There were 19 songs included in this Mason Cabaret performance. Seventeen were composed for Broadway, one for a television special, and one song won Stephen Sondheim an Academy Award.

The cabaret began as the cast sang some beautiful harmonies during “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story. Although every song that followed was performed with energy and gusto, these were my favorites:

Jacob Lash ‘sold’ “Finishing the Hat” with his heartfelt and emotional rendition. He didn’t just sing it – he ‘lived’ it – evoking the sadness and and determination and regret of a frustrated artist. It was a tour de force!

Margaret Berkowitz sang the heck out of “The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music. Her heart fluttered and her eyes twinkled as she sang about her longing to marry the man she loves. It’s not an easy song to sing, but Margaret hit it out of the ballpark.

Ruthie Rado took another difficult song to sing – this time from Follies – “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” I have always had a hard time understanding the lyrics of this ‘double-sided’ song and Ruthie’s clear enunciation of each precious and brilliant Sondheim lyric was perfection. And she brought the right amount of craziness and sassiness to make it a wonderful experience.

Alexandra Burger-Pool was simply ‘lovely’ as she and Jacob Lash had lots of fun with Sondheim’s cutesy lyrics of “Lovely” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. They, deservedly, received many laughs for their efforts.

Matthew Lincoln-Bugg’s gorgeous tenor shined in his rendition of ‘Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd. It was simply divine!

The show was presented with a bare stage except for a Christmas tree surrounded by presents, and chairs for the female performers, while the four male performers stood behind them. A piano was stage left. This presented a unique opportunity for the audience to focus on the music and lyrics and the performers’ personal touches. Special kudos to Inna Mirtcheva, who accompanied the singers beautifully on the piano.

As a member of the audience at Stephen Sondheim’s 80th Birthday one-on-one interview with Washington Post Chief Critic Peter Marks on November 14, 2010 at Strathmore – tonight’s gift for me was a chance to marry those two events together and gain further insight into the Sondheim ingenuity.

James Gardiner.

James Gardiner has been immersed in Sondheim’s works, songs, and lyrics while performing in many of the composer’s shows here at Signature Theatre. His students are so fortunate to have James share his experiences, insights, and admiration for Stephen Sondheim’s work with them. It was thrilling to see the enthusiasm and admiration these young singers had not only for Mr. Sondheim, but also for James. As they sang these words together from “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along to end their performance – there was no doubt in my mind that these young performers will be singing Sondheim’s songs for generations to come because of James’ inspiration.

“We’re the movers and we’re the shapers.
We’re the names in tomorrow’s papers.
Up to us, man, to show ’em

It’s our time, breathe it in:
Worlds to change and worlds to win.
Our turn coming through,
Me and you, man,
Me and you!”

Stephen Sondheim.

Finishing the Hat: A Tribute to Stephen Sondheim was performed for one night only on December 17, 2012 at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA.

James Gardiner and the cast on Finishing the Hat: A Tribute to Stephen Sondheim.


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