Strong singers sweeten ‘Sondheim on Sondheim’ at Silhouette Stages

This high-quality production is beautifully executed and will make you smile.

Full disclosure: I’m not a Sondheim fan. I’ll agree that his work is largely brilliant, but the shows don’t resonate with me particularly, and I find his songs unhummable, not fun for the average unskilled shower singer.

Silhouette Stages presents Sondheim on Sondheim at Slayton House Theater in Columbia’s Wilde Lake Village Center, and if you, like me, are not a fan of Sondheim, this show may not change your mind. It is, however, exceedingly well done, being musically excellent, full of heart, with cast members who will engage you beyond their vocal talents. They insert comedy, irony, desperation, and hope under Director/Choreographer Stephen Foreman’s capable direction. Sondheim fans will surely rejoice.

Josh Mooney, Benton Evans, Tommy Malek, and Matt Wetzel (in foreground) in ‘Sondheim on Sondheim.’ Photo courtesy of Silhouette Stages.

Sondheim on Sondheim is a veritable “best of” Sondheim’s songs plus Sondheim himself. The show concept and original Broadway direction were the work of James Lapine, a frequent and longtime collaborator with Sondheim. The result is akin to something Ken Burns might create if Ken Burns did a special on Stephen Sondheim.

The show shares 7 musical numbers with Side by Side by Sondheim (a similar musical review of Sondheim songs) but contains altogether 41 numbers from 19 shows, plus one new song Sondheim wrote specifically for the production. What makes Sondheim on Sondheim more interesting than Side by Side is the projection screen full of ephemera, paintings, and especially video clips across the years of Sondheim talking about himself, including footage from HBO’s Six by Sondheim, another Lapine product.

An orchestra box sits on stage, with Sondheim’s signature emblazoned on it. I take note of Pit Conductor Paige Rammelkamp, whose gestures are clear and graceful. Musical Director Rachel Sandler does a brilliant job with both instrumentals and vocals. Director/Choreographer Stephen Foreman also designed the set. A set is tricky with an orchestra already on your stage, but Foreman delivers vertical interest and seamless transitions with elegance, panache, and rolling platforms that operate as smoothly as pneumatics.

It’s a treat early in the show to hear “Something’s Coming” (from West Side Story, for which Sondheim was lyricist) performed as a quartet featuring AnnaBelle Lowe, Ellen Quay, Matt Wetzel, and Tommy Malek. Most of us know it only as a solo.

Each performer also shines individually as well as in groups. We admire AnnaBelle Lowe again in “Now You Know” (from Merrily We Roll Along) with some nice interchanges between her and castmates Ellen Quay, and Kristen Zwobot. Versatile local performer Matt Wetzel is hilariously frustrated in “Franklin Shepard Inc.” (another from Merrily We Roll Along), and despite his fury building to crescendo, every lyric is perfectly clear.

AnnaBelle Lowe, Tommy Malek, Josh Mooney, Robyn Bloom Yakaitis, Kristen Zwobot, Matt Wetzel, Benton Evans, and Ellen Quay in ‘Sondheim on Sondheim.’ Photo courtesy of Silhouette Stages.

Elucidating a completely different sort of frustration, Benton Evans delivers “Is This What You Call Love?” (from Passion) with rigid body language and a voice right on the edge of breaking. In Act 2, everyone in the Ensemble begins responding to Sondheim’s presence during the number “God,” the only song Sondheim wrote specifically for the show.

Tommy Malek is earnest with Bobby’s signature number from Company, “Being Alive,” alternating between sweetness and urgency in a way most of us have experienced. Ellen Quay’s comic reactions to Sondheim’s remarks following her lovely performance of “Do I Hear a Waltz?” (from the show of the same name) are well-played and relatable. As the featured vocalist in “Smile Girls” (from Gypsy), Kristen Zwobot delivers Ethel Merman energy without going overboard into caricature.

Josh Mooney’s deliberate pacing as he articulates the obsessive nature of creative energy in “Finishing the Hat,” from Sunday in the Park With George, allows him to explain things to us in a way we’ll never hear from obsessed creatives in our own lives. I grew up loving Judy Collins’ cover of “Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music), and it’s widely accepted as definitive, topping Sinatra and Streisand, but the phrasing and crispness I hear from Robin Yakaitis makes me wish to always hear her version instead.

Production values vary — the set, lighting, and movement of wing platforms are super smooth. As for costuming, most are elegant, with some distractingly unflattering exceptions. Minor issues with body mics dampen a few moments. A video hiccup near the opening of Act II builds unplanned tension in the room. A clever bit of improv by Matt Wetzel, with an appropriate response from the trombonist, defuses the situation and results in laughter from the audience.

If you love Sondheim’s music, see this high-quality production. It’s beautifully executed and will make you smile. Enjoy obscure tidbits as well as standard mega-hits, without a show to interfere with the singing. There are touching moments, funny moments, surprising moments, and heartbreaking moments. If someone you love loves Sondheim, buy two tickets and enjoy the show together. It will make you both smile. There’s plenty in this production to make even a non-Sondheimist like me feel it is time well spent.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, with a 20-minute intermission.

Sondheim on Sondheim plays through June 18, 2023 (Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm; Sunday at 3:00 pm), presented by Silhouette Stages performing at Slayton House Theater, 10400 Cross Fox Lane, Columbia, MD. Ticket prices are $24 for general admission; $20 for students, educators, military, and seniors. Purchase tickets online or in person starting two hours before each performance. For more information, email info@silhouettestages.com or call 410-216-4499.

COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but not required. See the theater’s website for more details.

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