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Sondheim Dishes Foxy Mama, Barbara Cook Steals Show: John Simon

From left, Euan Morton, Leslie Kritzer, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott, surrounded by a picture of the composer-lyricist, in "Sondheim on Sondheim" at Studio 54 in New York. The revue of songs by Stephen Sondheim is staged by James Lapine. Photographer: Richard Termine/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

“Sondheim on Sondheim,” the revue put together by James Lapine from Stephen Sondheim’s songs, confirms enchantingly what we already know but can gladly bear such eloquent repeating of: that Sondheim is the best composer-lyricist we’ve got.

To have it incarnated on Broadway by a cast headed by Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat and five personable others leaves us, after two-and-a-half hours, only hungry for more. Every item in this expansive, diverse catalog seems to claim swift recognition: “I am a Sondheim song, and could be no other’s.”

Lapine, a frequent Sondheim collaborator, gives us a cogent selection of the well-known, lesser-known and some esoteric numbers, including a few seconds of a high-school piece promptly stopped by the composer. We hear songs from musicals as diverse as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company” and “Merrily We Roll Along,” to mention just a few high points from a life in the theater that has been full of them.

This is where the “on Sondheim” aspect comes in, with frequent remarks on the songs and related matters -- on his life and work -- by the man himself, a genial commentator heard and seen on screen here at many ages and stages, from infancy to seemingly this very minute.

The comments are charming, witty and often uncensored (especially concerning his manipulative mother, who was known as Foxy), a touch gossipy but always pertinent rather than impertinent, with neither false modesty nor genuine arrogance. And then there are the amazing visuals, but first some words about the cast.

Ageless Diva

There is, to begin with, Cook, one of our ageless Sondheim divas, whose voice and persona remain forever young, and not just, as her song from “Follies” would have it, in Buddy’s eyes and ears. She commands the stage, farthest reaches of the house and uttermost recesses of our hearts and minds with the calmest ease. And though she can summon up as fine a fortissimo as anyone, it is the pianissimos that get us where we live.

One of the many showstoppers is the duet of “Losing My Mind” and “Not A Day Goes by” that she shares with Williams, the latter being the obligatory beauty a Sondheim show regularly features (Alexis Smith, Lee Remick and Bernadette Peters leap to mind), who can also sing, act and slink to perfection. And then there are the comediennes -- the sweetly staring stringbean of Erin Mackey and bouncy, bubbly Leslie Kritzer -- neatly rounding things out.

Among the men, the powerful, mellifluous baritone of Norm Lewis comes off best, especially where romance is needed, rather outshining Wopat as the sophisticated older guy, somewhat lacking in sophistication. As the sassily callow youth, Matthew Scott holds his own; for comedy, Euan Morton fills the bill and then some.

Rubik’s Cube

The presentation is especially brilliant, giving us the sense of being inside a Rubik’s Cube or two. On a mighty revolve, we get a wall of rectangles that can split up into all sorts of configurations, go off in sundry directions, replicate one image or offer many in a visual crazy quilt of talking heads, colorful designs or abstractions. Now it’s Sondheim speaking from them, now it’s merry pictures, geometric shapes and color washes.

Farther back is another such wall; in between a winding stairway going delightfully nowhere and some of the rectangles lying about the edges like tossed playing cards. Way in the back is an enormous scrim, sometimes a solid backdrop, sometimes diaphanous veil faintly revealing the orchestra.

For all this, Lapine and his cohorts -- Beowulf Boritt (set), Ken Billington (lights) and Peter Flaherty (video and projections) earn our unstinting admiration. So do Michael Starobin’s orchestrations, David Loud’s arrangements and conducting, Dan Knechtges’s musical staging, and Susan Hilferty’s piquant costumes.

At Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; Rating: ****

What the Stars Mean:
****       Do Not Miss
***        Excellent
**         Good
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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