Stephen Sondheim Music Trhives On Local Talent

Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance Excels at Stephen Sondheim's Musical Challenge

David Stone
In performance: "Something's Coming" with (left to right) Helen Chen, Emily Carpenter, Carman Napier, Kaitlyn Abdul, Madison Abdul, Aya Esther Hayashi
In performance: "Something's Coming" with (left to right) Helen Chen, Emily Carpenter, Carman Napier, Kaitlyn Abdul, Madison Abdul, Aya Esther Hayashi
Photo credit: Isa Claudio Abdul

In our home, a bookshelf is packed with Playbills saved from shows we've seen on Broadway - and off, too. Honestly, few were more deliciously enjoyable than what we saw last weekend at Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance.

For us, it's next to impossible not to relish this artist's songs, but in Sondheim On Sondheim, a talented and well-prepared ensemble enlivened them with exciting homemade flavors. Between numbers, even sometimes during, I paused in amazement at the talent with which we must crowd onto red buses, every day, never realizing...

Director Jackie Lucid-Cusick corralled seventeen energetic performers and organized them in performance of well-known, barely known and not at all known songs interspersed with biographical videos of Stephen Sondheim himself. The composer, unintentionally undermining any ideas about his divinity, was spoofed as "God" in a funny number that opens the Act II.

And this wasn't simply a matter of talented singers with lovely voices standing at center stage to sing great songs.

The ensemble, solo or in whole, was consistently able to excite because choreographer Mary McCatty brilliantly coordinated bodies, plus props, on a small stage, framing the songs to perfection. If you're accustomed to big Broadway Houses, you may have missed the exhilarating intimacy of music up close and personal, songs song clean and straight, facial expressions adding character and emotional immediacy.

But none of that is possible without instrumental accompaniment matching the well-crafted works and performances. Sondheim wrote the tunes, but musical director Paul L. Johnson, who also accompanied on keyboard, figured out how to perfectly twin McCatty's choreography with voices. When she wasn't gracing the stage with her voice on emotionally charged songs like Children Will Listen, Aya Esther Hayashi also accompanied with captivating grace on flute.

Two numbers, both seemingly impossible to stage so well, linger in memory.

Closing Act I, all seventeen performers brought to vivid impressionistic life the multi-layered Sunday, for my money the loveliest song Sondheim ever wrote. The company soared past my expectations for a song I'd like if it was played on spoons, turning it into mesmerizing atmospheric art. Performers, instrumentalists and choreography lifted the stage past music into theatre.

Not much later, early in the Act II, sisters Kaitlyn and Madison Abdul settled in to perform, in enlightening unison, two of Sondheim's most difficult songs, Kaitlyn with Losing My Mind and Madison with Not a Day Goes By. Both numbers ache with the toll taken by romantic obsession, demanding that conviction command the voices with the pain of unfulfilled love. Both women found the emotional depth to make the numbers genuine and true.

I've said before, and I will write it here again: Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance, making the best of a surprising abundance of local talent, delivers artistry well above what a small community like ours should expect. The gift kept on giving throughout Sondheim On Sondheim.

While it's true that the ensemble had the songs of a recognized musical genius to work with, considering the high quality of the material, it would be easy to occasionally falter and get away with it. The company never did.

Even on the briefest number, when Jonathon Stein stood at center stage to sing the very early I'll Meet You at the Donut, the tone setting humor was pitch perfect as Sondheim himself interrupted and Stein was convincingly miffed.

Her versatility on display, Carman Napier was repeatedly called on to set a tone of elegance on songs like Take Me To The World and reverse it to join angroup working its playful way through Waiting For The Girls. Napier made it clear why she along with the Abdul sisters may be Roosevelt Island's next entries into Broadway stardom.

What About the Guys?

Both Russ Cusick and Eric B. Cohen did yeoman's work, required by the director to romance and fall in love with a variety of attractive women throughout the show. These stalwart men pulled it off with grace.

But seriously, each also scored with memorable individual numbers, Cusick on a delicate rendering of Georges Seurat in Finishing The Hat, and Cohen ought to receive an award simply for agreeing to tackle Being Alive, the soul-bearing climax from Company, a song he delivered with intensity and passion while surrounded by a supporting ensemble.

Together, the two men played convincing victims of Brenna Stein as she added her considerable comedic talents to a thrilling vocal range in the striptease - emphasis on tease - Ah, But Underneath.

Stein, among other numbers, also shined on This Wedding Is Off, a canceled number from Company that requires operatic skills she easily managed.

As for Cusick and Cohen, their teamwork and acting skills made Franklin Shepherd, Inc. come off like a one-act musical play and gave Waiting For The Girls the sexual anticipation and aching nostalgia that waited between the lyrics.

Regrets

Sadly, limits on time and space don't allow for enough words to salute Helen Chen and Emily Carpenter, both of whom sang and acted memorably on various numbers, or to recognize in full David Kolakoski's riveting Epiphany as the tortured barber Sweeney Todd

This company was great and deserves more pages than are available. For that, as an accidental reviewer, who came to Main Street Theatre only to be entertained on a few hours off the job, I apologize.

My only other regret is that I saw this special event for Roosevelt Island only once. Limited engagements leave little opportunity to go back for a second, better prepared helping. I'll have to be satisfied at having been able to enjoy this talented ensemble in performance at all.

For Cat Lovers