Sondheim upstages cast in ‘Sondheim on Sondheim’

The cast of the Lyric Stage Company production of "Sondheim on Sondheim." Photo: Mark S. Howard.

The cast of the Lyric Stage Company production of “Sondheim on Sondheim.” Photo: Mark S. Howard.

BOSTON – God bless Spiro Veloudos. For that matter, God bless Peter DuBois.

They are dedicated disciples of the work of Stephen Sondheim, the iconic songwriter whose work has graced many of the most important musicals of the last half-century.

Veloudos and his Lyric Stage Company of Boston have been plowing skillfully through the Sondheim canon for quite a few years now, winning critical praise and multiple awards along the way. DuBois recently rendered a quite lovely production of “A Little Night Music” at the Huntington, but his main contribution will be going forward, via a Sondheim initiative that will see the theater stage 15 Sondheim works over several years.

I admire Sondheim as much in my own way, but not being in a position to stage his work, I am content to sit back and enjoy work such as the Lyric Stage’s “Sondheim on Sondheim,” now at the Clarendon Street theater.

An energetic, diverse cast brings to life several dozen Sondheim tunes, some of which were actually cut along the way and never made it to Broadway, but are just now given their full due.

But as good as the cast is, they are continually upstaged by … Stephen Sondheim. Unlike other musical revues featuring Sondheim’s work such as “Marry Me a Little” and “Side by Side by Sondheim,” “Sondheim on Sondheim” features the composer himself, seen via Peter Flaherty’s video on a large video screen, one of several screens used for projections that are an integral part of the production.

Davron S. Monroe and Leigh Barrett in "Sondheim on Sondheim." Photo: Mark S. Howard.

Davron S. Monroe and Leigh Barrett in “Sondheim on Sondheim.” Photo: Mark S. Howard.

If there is a caveat for Sondheim revues, it’s that his songs are so strongly integrated and tied to the productions they’re part of, some songs don’t stand that well on their own, especially when just one song is included from the 19 major works represented here.

The best moments in this production come when there are several songs from the same show, along with Sondheim’s own words to give context, to give us a feel for such shows as “Company,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Passion,” and “Sunday in the Park With George”

It’s quite remarkable that Sondheim emerged as a major talent, given that it was only because as a child he became friends with famed lyricist Oscar Hammerstein and his family, who essentially raised him while Hammerstein was infusing in Sondheim a love for songwriting.

Sondheim is front and center throughout, interspersing bits and pieces of his life story with theatrical anecdotes that are informative, enlightening, and entertaining, informing us about the decisions he made and the back stories to his works, including the revelations that while “Assassins” might be his most fully-realized work, he may be most partial to“Sunday in the Park with George.”

Veloudos, who appeared via recorded introduction to “Sondheim on Sondheim,” directs with his patented attention to detail and his work with designers and musicians he has worked with successfully in the past, including musical director Jonathan Goldberg and Ilyse Robbins, whose choreography and musical staging prevents the revue from ever becoming stagy or stagnant.

This production is lifted considerably not just by the video of Sondheim, but with beautifully rendered projections from, for example, of the work of Georges Seurat in numbers from “Sunday in the Park With George;” the local projection design was done by Seaghan McKay.

In a strong, diverse cast, two of its more mature members — Leigh Barrett and Christopher Chew – are first among equals, perhaps because life experience and a certain world-weariness come in handy with many of Sondheim’s more melancholy pieces.

Thus Barrett shines with “In Buddy’s Eye” and “Losing my Mind” from Follies and “Loving You” from “Passion” as well as the iconic “Send in the Clowns.” Chew revives his Sweeney Todd character for a wrenching “Epiphany.”

The rest of the cast also has its moments, including the redoubtable Aimee Doherty, a Lyric mainstay, joining Barrett for a truly stirring “Not a Day Goes By” from “Merrily We Roll Along.”

Veloudos hands Davron Monroe the stirring ballad “Being Alive,” from “Company” and he knocks it out of the park.

The spunky, full-voiced Mala Bhattacharya gives her all to “Do I Hear A Waltz” while in the background Sondheim muses that the show never really had a reason to exist and that he wasted 18 months on it.

Patrick Varner, Maritza Bostic and Sam Simahk, all of whom have performed recently in area Sondheim shows, have their strong moments individually – and also as part of the group in the ensemble numbers.

But always, there is Sondheim, with another anecdote that is funny, enlightening or the simply heartbreaking story about how his mother – with whom he never had a real relationship – sent him a letter late in her life as she was about to undergo major heart surgery, saying the major regret of her life was giving birth to him. That story morphs seamlessly into the ballad “Children Will Listen,” from “Into The Woods,” which contains the lyrics:

Careful the things you say,

Children will listen.

Careful the things you do,

Children will see and learn.

Children will listen, indeed. Indeed, we’re all still listening, and it’s likely we’ll never stop, if people such as Veloudos and DuBois have their way.

The Lyric Stage Company production of “Sondheim on Sondheim.” Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Conceived (and directed on Broadway) by James Lapine, Inspired by a concept by David Kernan, Video Created and Designed by Peter Flaherty, Orchestrations by Michael Starobin, Arrangements by David Loud; Directed by Spiro Veloudos; Music Director,Jonathan Goldberg; Choreography & Musical Staging by Ilyse Robbins; Scenic Design, David Towlun; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, Chris Hudacs Projection Design, Seághan McKay; Sound Design, Andrew Duncan Will. Through Feb. 21.