Musical theater doesn’t get more challenging than Stephen Sondheim — for audiences and performers alike. So hurrah for Columbia’s fearless Red Branch Theatre Co. for bringing us the Sondheim revue You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow as a mid-season fundraiser.
At Saturday night’s performance, the onstage cast of 18 adult singers gave the score a fresh hearing, and no doubt introduced even faithful followers to some lesser-known byways in the land of Sondheim.
Forget the milestone shows and the hit songs they fostered. You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow is mostly comprised of cut songs, abandoned drafts, and a few forgotten romantic gems from Sondheim’s early shows. To fill in missing contexts between selections, the singers themselves step forward to set the scenes and introduce the dramatic situations.
The program begins with the “Invocation” from Frogs, one of Sondheim’s first solo efforts, and presents a light-hearted list of do’s and don’ts for audience members. One that it misses: Don’t let your mind wander for even a moment or you are likely to miss some fabulous word-play.
Besides Frogs, the other early shows getting a cursory review include Saturday Night, Pacific Overtures and Anyone Can Whistle. The revue is on more familiar ground with its unexpected choices from later critical favorites like Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies, A Little Night Music and Merrily We Roll Along.
The singers appear on a bare, black-and-white stage with a single piano. Directors Grace Anastasiadis and Janelle Broderick keep the flow of performers fluid and varied throughout, allowing them the freedom to fully vent their turmoil and passions.
Mostly, however, these songs are more concerned with control and the communication of nuance and irony. Having the cast dressed in basic black with the occasional splash of red in shoes or ties is a nice touch.
All of the performers have their own approaches to the difficulties of Sondheim’s staccato melodies and his torrent of literate lyrics. Wendy Baird is entrusted with the penultimate show-stopper, “Send in the Clowns,” and more than proves herself up to it with unerring pitch and an elegantly modulated musicality.
Other standouts include newcomer Andy Kay, whose trained voice displays beauty, poise and range. She could step into the role of lead ingenue in any professional production of The Fantasticks tomorrow, in this critic’s opinion.
The men are well represented by Peter Boyer, who hits all of the Sondheim benchmarks in “Old Friends” and gets laughs besides in the Pacific Overtures sequence “Someone in a Tree” — a lyrical exercise in frustration if ever there was one.
Always a winner at Red Branch is returning musician-performer Wil Lewis III. The dense narrative patter of “Pretty Little Picture” almost gets away from him until he asserts control by becoming perhaps the first singer ever to introduce some African-American blues stylings into a Sondheim melody.
Also excellent among the males is Patrick Klink, a sort of good-natured update on the old Tony Randall sidekick type, but with a voice and manner perfectly suited for musical comedy. DeCarlo Raspberry is especially effective in numbers that show off his handsome baritone, such as the “Poems” challenge duet and the lovely “Fear No More.”
Cory Jones, Caroline Griswold, Dustin Merrill, and Andy Kay excel with the title song (borrowed from Follies).
Despite hitting the occasional flat note or shrill tone, all the performers handle the challenges with grace and talent to spare, including stalwarts Annette Wasno, Amanda Spellman, Emily Morgan, Cheryl Campo, Kathryn Marshall, Kevin Cleaver, and Erin Branigan.
Many in this cast will be featured in future Red Branch shows, including the upcoming debut of Triumph of Love, October 3-18, 2014. If nothing else, the too-brief run of You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow is assurance enough that we’re gonna continue to love this hard-working Columbia playhouse.
Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.