Review: Sondheim on Sondheim, Squabbalogic

Squabbalogic, the independent musical theatre company that kicked off Sydney’s tiny revolution into becoming a place for high-quality boutique musical theatre, has re-located itself to the Reginald at the Seymour Centre and embarked on a new, 2014-2015 season. The first show is Sondheim on Sondheim, a revue featuring what else but songs by Stephen Sondheim, a contemporary musical theatre legend. It also features interview snippets with the man, projected onto a large screen, to contextualise the songs.

Monique Salle, Rob Johnson, and Blake Erickson. Image by Michael Francis.
Monique Salle, Rob Johnson, and Blake Erickson. Image by Michael Francis.

While the company has had great success with the revue format before (their take on Forbidden Broadway has earned return seasons and cruise ship appearances), it falls a little flat here, and curiously so. Some musical numbers feel too busy or fussy, and the transitions between the audio-visual interview snippets into the musical numbers are not always easy or smooth. The music may be all Sondheim but it’s quite diverse, and the band struggles under the weight and complexity of a few numbers.  

Sondheim on Sondheim company. Image by Michael Francis.
Sondheim on Sondheim company. Image by Michael Francis.

Bafflingly, the show feels over-directed. With such sparse staging and a lovely crumpled-up-sheet-music set design by director Jay James-Moody, it’s discomfiting to lose the meaning of a song (“Send in the Clowns” and “Losing My Mind/Not a Day Goes By” are peculiar misfires) in its performance, when on stage there should be no barriers between the actor, the song, and its meaning. James-Moody generally has such a knack for drawing truthful performances out of his actors, especially during song. The moments that miss are more pronounced simply because they’re so unexpected.

The problem is, when all’s said and done, is that this is an excellently performed, okay production of a not-very-good show. Sondheim on Sondheim as an entity in itself a bit of a mess, a celebration of a celebrated man that doesn’t really try to be cohesive or compelling. It’s a bit long and it requires some real leaps of faith from the audience to stay on board and engaged. Luckily, if you see Squabbalogic’s production, and you’re ready and willing to be engaged, then you will be rewarded: there are some real gems in this show.

What James-Moody and Sondheim on Sondheim excel at, problems aside, is showcasing exceptional talent. The numbers that work well work very well, and the rare few that work remarkably end up bordering on the sublime.

Louise Kelly, Blake Erickson, and Rob Johnson. Image by Michael Francis.
Louise Kelly, Blake Erickson, and Rob Johnson. Image by Michael Francis.

Rob Johnson, who starred in Squabbalogic’s Carrie, finally becomes the force of nature that was lurking but not quite realised in his Tommy Ross. When he takes the audience on a ride through Merrily We Roll Along’s “Franklin Shepherd Inc” it is masterful – his clarity and humour and frustration and regret are so worth the price of admission alone. Johnson is skilfully comic and deftly complex in this number, and it’s a real credit to James-Moody and Johnson that they have brought a fully realised performance to the table for just one song from one of Sondheim’s more obscure shows. Johnson can and should handle meaty roles in the musical theatre world; he’s ready, and his voice has never sounded better.

Monique Sallé, whose choreography at times is a little too much, is however one of the golden performers of this revue. She sings “Opening Doors” from Merrily with Johnson and Blake Erickson, which is so great this whole show could have just been that show instead. She’s an essential key in the harmonies throughout that show, sort of the place you can hang your hat in the mix of women’s voices: a beacon. Her voice is powerful, with a real authentic streak of tenderness in it; there’s something loving in the way she approaches music.  

Blake Erickson in Sondheim on Sondheim. Image by Michael Francis.
Blake Erickson in Sondheim on Sondheim. Image by Michael Francis.

Another real standout of the show is Blake Erickson’s “Finishing the Hat”. Erickson is a gift for audiences; he’s a natural fit for Sondheim, a performer who brings articulate intelligence to his phrasing, who wears his emotion in a look or the set of his shoulders, who sings beautifully with a sort of caramelised longing. Sunday in the Park With George is certainly a beautiful show and “Finishing the Hat” is an anthem of sort for artists and creators; Erickson, being both, is perhaps the perfect person to showcase the song (and not just because one hopes the leading role of that show is waiting in his future). Erickson is a great fit for a revue because he can act a performance’s worth of feeling in a single number and you still feel the entire dramatic arc of the character. Erickson’s voice is also one of the great anchors of numbers like “Something’s Coming”, but also through the whole show – the ensemble pieces wouldn’t soar quite as high without him. 

Those ensemble pieces, too, are by and large terrific, because as well as Johnson, Sallé, and Erickson we have Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Christy Sullivan, and Dean Vince taking the stage; it’s a beautiful mix of voices, some of Sydney’s very best.

And really, if you can forgive the framework, you’ll be given beautiful vocal performances, several excellent acting performances, and the feeling that you’re discovering performers a minute before the rest of the world catches on. That’s the great thing about Squabbalogic: you’re seeing real talent on stage and in the creation of their shows offstage, and even if they stumble a little once or twice, they’re still better on their bad days than most everyone else on their best.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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