Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Before Sondheim Was Sondheim

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Before Sondheim Was Sondheim

Article excerpt

Less is more in Signature Theatre's Saturday Night

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. …

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