"When I was young and simple (I don't recall the date). Once, yes, once for a lark. Twice, though, loses the spark." — "I Never Do Anything Twice," Stephen Sondheim
I'm especially thankful that Bennett Wood, who developed and directed the simple and sophisticated A Sondheim Celebration currently onstage at Theatre Memphis, isn't a bit like the character narrating "I Never Do Anything Twice." Wood has a clear affinity for the material and doesn't need much in the way of narration or explanation to make a lifetime's worth of songs from different periods play out like the story of a lifetime.
I have very clear memories of Sondheim & Sondheim, the first (that I know of) musical revue compiled and directed by Wood as a benefit for McCoy Theatre at Rhodes College in 1986. Stephen Pair's set was a sleek black-on-black affair with alternating flat and glossy rays spreading across the stage like the photo negative of Japan's rising sun. The only color on the set came from a large glass bowl of bright-red roses on a shiny, black baby grand. It couldn't have been more '80s. And the stellar cast, which included area heavy-hitters like Barry Fuller, Ann Sharp, Christina Wellford Scott, and Tony Lee Garner, made the notoriously complex material look like a walk in the park.
Although I was familiar with Sweeney Todd and with Sondheim's collaborative efforts West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Wood's concert was my introduction to the broader body of work. And what a body it was.
Wood managed to make a map of the human heart by breaking the musical material down into eight categories: "Once Upon a Time" (a year before Into the Woods was produced), "How About It," "Perfect Relationships," "Financial Affairs," "Brief Encounters," "Betwixt and Between," "Wilted Flowers," and "Hell To Pay."
The lyrics were as sophisticated and emotionally messy as the set was crisp and simple. These songs — especially Cayce Blanchard's bawdy run through "The Miller's Son" from A Little Night Music — opened up a whole new world of possibilities for a young actor who wasn't sure that he liked musical theater very much.
Christopher McCollum's set for A Sondheim Celebration — little more than a pair of tables and some nice lighting — is as perfectly minimal as Pair's was for Wood's '86 concert, creating an elegant, uncluttered space where the songs can live on their own. The excellent cast — under the musical direction of Gary Beard — includes original Sondheim & Sondheim star Ann Sharp as well as frequent Wood collaborator Jude Knight performing alongside Lydia Hart, Joe Lackie, Justin Asher, Jonathan Christian, Brennan Villines, and Theatre Memphis' executive producer, Debbie Litch.
This time around, Wood hasn't broken down the material into categories, but if he had, the list might be similar. "Love Is in the Air," an orphaned tune originally composed as the opening number of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, makes a perfectly good stand-in for "Once Upon a Time," and the song list that follows — drawn from Follies, Company, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Anyone Can Whistle, A Little Night Music, and other shows — traces nearly every facet of human relationships with sharp, sometimes bawdy wit and insight.
This celebration may not be for everyone. It is relatively low-key with little in the way of choreography. For those who like to listen, however, it's a pithy essay on the state of being alive.
Through November 20th