Before Sondheim was Sondheim

Less is more in Signature Theatre's Saturday Night.






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Publication: The Sondheim Review
Author: Treanor, Tim
Date published: April 1, 2012

A sound; a song; a rhyme; Sondheim. The best Stephen Sondheim musicals are like that, bubbling up like a force of nature from some invisible universe, appearing as a snatch of found music and found poetry and turning irresistibly into a found musical, as though it had always existed in nature and only Sondheim could see it and make it sensible to the rest of us.

Saturday Night, staged briefly on Oct. 29-30, 2011, by Signature Theatre of Arlington, Va., is not one of those musicals. It is, instead, based on a minor play called Front Porch in Flatbush by the Epstein twins (who wrote the screenplays for Arsenic and Old Lace and Casablanca) and turned into a musical by a very young Sondheim. You might know the story behind the story: When Frank Loesser was unavailable for the project, producer Lemuel Ayers turned to Sondheim, a Hammerstein protégé who was at the time writing scripts for the Topper television series. The show was almost ready for production when Ayers died in 1955. It did not show up onstage until 42 years later.

Julius J. Epstein's windy book, about a young man with con-artist tendencies and poor impulse control, is not intrinsically interesting. But Sondheim, improbably, made it interesting, laying down a stylistically eclectic score and giving the lyrics a cynical list that adds spice to Epstein's familiar concept. Signature's Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner, who adapted and directed this on-book production, cannily slenderized the dialogue so that it told the story and no more, and Musical Director Jon Kalbfleisch streamlined the orchestra into a three-man band, with himself conducting and playing a smokin' piano. "Less is more," is one of the three principles Sondheim identifies in Finishing the Hat as necessary for a lyric writer. Signature got the point and applied it to the production. The result was a two-hour show that moved and amused.

The story is this: It is 1929, and Gene (Geoff Packard) , a working-class Brooklynite who aspires mightily to the leisure class, is doing a little fantasy house-shopping with his similarly inclined girlfriend Helen (Susan Derry). Seized by a sudden impulse, he agrees to rent a swank Sutton Place apartment, using for the deposit a wad of cash his friends gave him to invest on a hot stock. Now desperate for funds for the investment, he borrows, using his unsuspecting cousin's car as collateral. He buys the stock, which tanks immediately, and he spends most of the rest of the show dodging creditors, his cousin and the cops.

In short, it is the standard stuff of farce. But Sondheim, notwithstanding his tyro status, did some nervy things with it. For one thing, there was no chorus, virtually unheard of in 1955. There was, of course, choral singing, but it was done by real characters, each with their own story. Sondheim particularized those characters in his music. For example, we know all we needed to know about Gene's yearnings, and how far short he is of them, in "Class": "Ten buck tips/Havana cigars/Cross-country trips/In high-powered cars/'Captain, bring me a brandy/And a large demitasse!'/Week nights I'm a Brooklyn boy,/But on Saturday night/I've got class!"

Packard handled "Class" superbly, and in many other ways showed himself to be a first-rate Sondheim interpreter. The Gene he played was no con but a kid with poor judgment, in over his head. On the lam from his many pursuers, Gene was sick with fear and slick with bravado. Packard, whose signature role is the title character in Mary Zimmerman's Candide (Helen Hayes Award in Washington; Joseph Jefferson winner in Chicago), showed that he could usefully be considered for male lead roles in a number of Sondheim musicals.

But Signature's strong cast gave specificity and gravity to all of the characterizations, as a Sondheim piece requires. Of particular note was William Beech as the cynically misogynistic Bobby, whose perpetual sneer seemed a part of his anatomy. It was striking to watch the baby-faced Bobby warn Gene against the horrors of marriage and even more striking to realize that Beech is only 17 years old and filling out college applications when not engaged on the stage. Think of it: a musical composed by a young man at the outset of his career, performed 56 years later by a young man at the outset of his career - an arc that could last a century or longer.

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Author affiliation:

TIM TREANOR is the senior reviewer for dctheatrescene.com, a Washington-area website. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association, he was a 2011 fellow of the Eugene O'Neill National Critics Institute.

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