ShentonSTAGE Daily for FRIDAY DECEMBER 16

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily.

I returned from New York yesterday morning, so today’s newsletter is a wrap-up of my (brief) trip.

As I tweeted on my departure on Wednesday night:

I reported on some of my trip on Monday here: http://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-daily-for-monday-december-12/

But I definitely saved the best for last: on Monday I was at a charity gala to benefit the Entertainment Community Fund (formerly the Actors’ Fund) of Tim RIce, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’s musical CHESS — it cost me an eye-watering $500 for the ticket, but it was in a good cause, and actually worth the money!

Darren Criss (pictured centre below, by Bruce Glikas) as the American chess player Freddie Trumper performed “Pity the Child”  with a raw, shattering intensity that combined the character’s raging narcissism and self-pity; it alone justified the expense. He was joined by an equally vocally thrilling Ramin Karimloo as his opposite number Russian chess player. and Lena Hall and Solea Pfeiffer as the women in their lives.

Long before RENT and HAMILTON, the score for CHESS is still the best rock theatre score of the last half century; and as punchily rendered under musical supervision of Brian Usifer and musical direction of Roberto Sinha, it truly rocked.

The utterly preposterous book still remains an obstacle, but as adapted by Danny Strong and narrated by the wonderfully droll Bryce Pinkham, it was both knowing and funny.

Sondheim, back off (and on) Broadway

Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince first joined forces on the 1970 breakthrough masterpiece COMPANY, that ushered in a run of thrilling musicals throughout the 1970s that also comprised FOLLIES, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, PACIFIC OVERTURES and SWEENEY TODD (the latter of which is set to be revived at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre next March, with a cast led by Josh Groban in the title role).

But that run of 70s hits was brought to a sudden end by the short-lived 1981 premiere of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG that ran for just a fortnight, and brought the Sondheim/Prince collaboration to an end (though it was briefly resurrected when Prince staged the 2003 Chicago premiere of BOUNCE; it didn’t get to Broadway at all).  We lost Prince in 2019, and it’s just over a year since Sondheim died, too; they were both 91 at the time of their deaths. (Sondheim made his Broadway debut in 1957, aged 27, with lyrics for WEST SIDE STORY that was produced, but not directed, by Prince; he died on November 26, 2021).

The last production that Sondheim personally oversaw was last year’s Broadway transfer of the most recent London revival of his 1970 masterpiece COMPANY.

The first posthumously produced revival of one of his shows was INTO THE WOODS, his 1987 collaboration with co-writer/director James Lapine, in a production that originated at New York City Center in a two week spring run last May as part of its Encores season that featured an all-star cast including Neil Patrick Harris as the Baker and Heather Headley as the Witch.

That production then transferred to Broadway’s St James Theatre (where it is still running, to January 8), without Harris or Headley, but with multiple other stellar replacements along the way. I’ve now seen it three times in all, to catch different people: Sara Bareilles has been succeeded as the Baker’s Wife by an equally marvellous Stephanie J. Block, with Harris succeeded as the Baker by her own husband Sebastian Arcelus and Brian d’Arcy James. The stripped back staging, directed by Lear deBessonet, is light on its feet, elegant and intensely moving, with a 15-piece onstage orchestra giving us Sondheim’s ravishing score in all its glory.

Last Saturday I saw one of my all-time favourite Broadway voices Liz Callaway, who made her Broadway debut, aged 21, in the original production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along in 1981, in concert at a performing arts centre in South Orange, New Jersey, joined by her sister Ann Hampton Callaway. Their long-time accompanist is Alex Rybeck, whom LIz met when he was a pianist in the original Merrily.

This year Liz and Alex joined forces on a gorgeous, highly personal tribute to Sondheim, called TO STEVE WITH LOVE, which I saw both at its New York premiere at 54 Below in March and then again at London’s Crazy Coqs in November.

But if you missed it, you can experience some of the glory of it on a new CD release of the show, including tracks like ‘What More Do I Need?’ from Sondheim’s Saturday Night which she first introduced to the world in a Stephen Sondheim Evening at the Whitney Museum in 1983, long before Saturday Night was subsequently taken to the world. (She also sings a ravishing version of ‘Take me to the World’, from Sondheim’s 1966 television musical Evening Primrose).

And talking of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, Maria Friedman’s 2012 London revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory is currently bringing the show back to New York, at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, in a production that is now heavily tipped to be Broadway bound. 

This intricate, intimate and layered musical, about two musical theatre collaborators whose partnership is brought to a sudden end is given fresh poignancy by Sondheim’s death last year that makes it intensely moving (though Prince and Sondheim remained friends despite the original failure of this show).

Its portrait of long-term relationships that curdle and sour over time is, like his 1971 masterpiece FOLLIES, about betrayals, lost innocence and professional and personal compromises amongst theatrical folk; but it could be and is about any of us.

This exquisitely cast new production has three magnificent and moving leads in Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff and (especially) Lindsay Mendes (pictured above, left to right), capturing the aching heart of it.

There’s also an overpowering sense of grief and loss in OHIO STATE MURDERS, essentially a searing monologue about racial discrimination at an Ohio university in the early 1950s for the great Audra McDonald (pictured above, though there are four other actors who appear briefly).

The production marks a double debut: for its 91-year-old playwright Adrienne Kennedy; and for the reopening of the re-christened James Earl Jones Theatre, formerly the Cort, after a stunning refurbishment. That the star, playwright and the theatre’s new namesake are each prominent black theatre creatives is also a wonderful statement of intent for wider representation on Broadway (the Brooks Atkinson Theatre was also renamed recently in honour of the late Lena Horne).

FUTURE SHOWS IN LONDON AND BEYOND

My regularly updated feature on shows in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway is here: http://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-december-12/.

See you here on Monday…

If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter (for the moment) here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends)

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