‘Simply Sondheim’ at Signature Theatre

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Including everything from Sunday in the Park with George to Company to Into the Woods and everything in between, the work of  has graced the stages of Signature Theatre an astounding twenty-four times; given Sondheim’s partnership with Signature Theatre for more than the past two decades, it seems clear that there’s no better way to celebrate Signature Theatre’s 25th anniversary year than with a special musical revue—a world premiere special event—to celebrate Signature Theatre and the musical genius himself, Stephen Sondheim. Simply Sondheim is an electrifying celebration of Sondheim’s great mind and brilliant talent coming together.

 (clockwise from the left) Bobby Smith, Austin Colby, Donna Migliaccio and Paul Scanlan in Simply Sondheim at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
(clockwise from the left) Bobby Smith, Austin Colby, Donna Migliaccio, and Paul Scanlan in ‘Simply Sondheim’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

With music and lyrics by none-other-than Stephen Sondheim, Simply Sondheim at Signature Theatre is a musical theatre lover’s dream performance. It’s simply the best that musical theatre has to offer. A stage set with flowing white ribbons lit dimly with soothing, warm bluish hues (lighting design by Rob Denton) strewn among a gorgeous 16-piece orchestra (orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick and musical supervision & vocal arrangements by David Loud) playing vivaciously the easily-recognizable musical theatre melodies that defined a generation of the theatre—it’s magical.

Co-conceived by David Loud and Eric Schaeffer, this original tribute celebrating Stephen Sondheim—produced with special permission from Sondheim himself—celebrates the countless works that Sondheim has produced over the years, delivered by Signature’s all-star cast: Austin Colby (Signature’s Crossing, Spin), Kellee Knighten Hough (Signature’s Xanadu), Donna Migliaccio (Signature’s Sunday in the Park with George, The Threepenny Opera), Paul Scanlan  (Signature’s Elmer Gantry, Sunday in the Park with George), Bobby Smith (Signature’s See What I Wanna See, Show Boat, Company), and Stephanie Waters (Signature’s Show Boat, Les Misérables, Into the Woods).

As Signature bills it: “Whether you’d like to race Into the Woods with Sweeney Todd and a few Assassins, enjoy A Little Night Music at the Follies on a Saturday Night, or simply relish a Sunday in the Park with George, you’ll be in good Company when six Signature favorites and a gorgeous 16-piece orchestra take the stage to honor the genius himself, Stephen Sondheim.” 

The cast of Simply Sondheim at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
The cast of ‘Simply Sondheim’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The performance begins with a rousing ensemble number “Merrily We Roll Along / Bounce” a mash-up of Sondheim’s 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along and Road Show (previously titled Bounce), that introduces the all-star six-person cast and the range of their powerhouse voices. The three men of the ensemble followed with a touching performance of “Saturday Night” from Sondheim’s Saturday Night; the women followed suit with an upbeat and toe-tapping rendition of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company. With absolutely no narration between songs, the musical revue then takes you on a fluid, uninterrupted journey through the Sondheim songbook as the cast moves about on and off the stage—sometimes carrying a few props to set the scene. It’s an exciting musical theatre safari through the times.

Austin Colby was a standout performer of the evening, bringing comedic relief with his cow in “I Guess This is Goodbye” from Into the Woods and tear-jerking honesty in his solemn performance of “Is This What You Call Love?” from Passion.  His comedic timing was impeccable in “Impossible” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which he performed with Bobby Smith . Smith similarly dazzles in the second act’s “The Right Girl” from Follies. Paul Scanlan  was also a joy to watch during his solo number “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George, delivering a performance that would make Sondheim proud.

What’s amazing throughout the entire performance is that, while some musicals are grouped together in short segments, many pieces from the same musical are performed at various times throughout the show—requiring the actors and actresses to switch between roles at the snap of a finger, instantaneously changing the mood from lighthearted to somber and back with poise and finesse. The effect is a non-linear, musical mosaic of sorts—taking what Sondheim originally produced and, in a way, creating an entirely new musical experience. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

The ladies of the group dazzled without fail the entire show. Kellee Knighten Hough was my personal favorite in “Getting Married Today” from Company where she sang effortlessly through the fast-paced, up-tempo song that left me tongue-tied just listening to it!  Her sentimental cover of “I Wish I Could Forget You” from Passion showcased tenderness in her voice.

Donna Migliaccio— a Signature legend—was similarly brilliant. She received uproarious applause for her performance of “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company, a song during which her powerhouse belting brought me goosebumps. Her hilarious rendition of “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd showcased her impeccable comedic timing that only years of experience could produce.

Donna Migliaccio and Bobby Smith in Simply Sondheim at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Donna Migliaccio and Bobby Smith in ‘Simply Sondheim’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Finally, Stephanie Waters was a tour-de-force, highlighted in “On the Steps of the Palace” from Into the Woods. Having played Cinderella in Signature’s production of the show previously, her finesse of the role came through as she stumbled about the stage barefoot, convincingly flitting mentally back-and-forth between solutions to her character’s dilemmas.Be sure to check out Simply Sondheim before it closes on April 19th! 

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Simply Sondheim plays through April 19, 2015 at Signature Theatre — 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

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Derek Mong
Derek is a DC-native and a graduate of Duke University (B.A Political Science). During his junior/senior year at Duke, Derek served as a Marketing and Public Relations intern at the Nederlander-operated Durham Performing Arts Center. At his internship, Derek developed marketing campaigns and assisted press in coverage of the four major Broadway engagements that season: Memphis, The Addams Family, Bring It On, and Wicked. Upon graduating from Duke in 2012, Derek joined a tech and management consulting firm in Arlington, VA, where he currently works. Derek enjoys frequenting the DC-NYC theatre scene; when not in the theatre, Derek can probably be found running outdoors, blogging, playing the piano, traveling the country, and, of course, tweeting (@derekmong). Derek is currently obsessed with Disney's 'Newsies' on Broadway.