Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

Sondheim Pure and Simple



Saturday Night

Pegasus Players

If You Ever Leave Me...I'm Going With You

Apollo Theater

By Albert Williams

"Hope I can give you one of these every year for the next forty years at least," Stephen Sondheim wrote to his father on the occasion of his 60th birthday. It was July of 1955, and the gift, records Meryle Secrest in her biography Stephen Sondheim: A Life, was a score for a musical play with which the 25-year-old songwriter was to make his Broadway debut that fall. Over the following four decades, Sondheim's output fell somewhat short of 40 shows, but his collaborative efforts in the 50s and solo outings in the 60s, 70s, and 80s proved him to be prolific and brilliant.

Saturday Night, however, never made it to the stage as planned. Sondheim--unproven as a composer though he had a modest track record as a writer, notably for the TV series Topper--was hired by producer Lemuel Ayers to provide the songs for this musical adaptation of an unproduced play, Front Porch in Flatbush. Ayers teamed Sondheim with the play's coauthor, veteran Hollywood screenwriter Julius J. Epstein, and had gone so far as to hire actors (among them Jack Cassidy, Alice Ghostley, and Joel Grey) and secure pledges from potential investors. But when Ayers died in August 1955 at the age of 40--from leukemia, an illness he'd kept hidden--the project died with him.

Or rather seemed to die, like Snow White after she bit into the apple. Some 40 years later, an adventurous British company called the Bridewell Theatre brought the show back to life, with Sondheim's permission, first on the stage and then on CD. Two years after the Bridewell's world premiere, Saturday Night has returned to America--not on Broadway, now radically different from when Sondheim wrote the songs, but in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, on the campus of Truman College: the non-Equity Pegasus Players are presenting a version that Sondheim not only edited but to which he contributed two new songs. It's a signal occasion for members of Sondheim's cult, who seem to embrace every note of his canon like pilgrims clutching at holy relics. Over the years Pegasus has nurtured this cult, presenting adventurous early efforts like Anyone Can Whistle and Pacific Overtures as well as the recent Assassins and Passion, which show the aging composer recycling unimaginative variations on the masterful scores of his artistic heyday.

Happily, Saturday Night has much more going for it. Slickly yet appealingly performed by a youthful cast under Gary Griffin's pitch-perfect direction, it's a fresh, buoyant work in which Sondheim's trademark wit is reined in by boyish innocence--some of it genuine, some manufactured to fit the immature characters. Ever analytical, Sondheim has on occasion been sharply critical of his own lyrics (he said the hit "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story was better suited to a Noel Coward character than to his teenage Puerto Rican heroine). Here the clever, sometimes smart-alecky words perfectly suit the characters--brassy Jazz Age Brooklynites on the eve of the Depression. And the music is no mere pastiche, though it acknowledges Gershwin, Berlin, and Ellington; prettier and structurally simpler than the spiky, semioperatic scores of Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George, it's almost always bracing and distinctive, punctuated by Sondheim's characteristic staccato accompaniment patterns and quicksilver chromatic harmonies. (Crisp reed and horn arrangements by Sondheim's longtime orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, bring out the delicious details.)

Saturday Night's zingy songs are wedded to a sharp, strong book. Epstein--whose long list of screenplays includes Casablanca, written with his twin brother, Philip, and Howard Koch, as well as film versions of works by James Thurber (The Male Animal), George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart (The Man Who Came to Dinner), and Peter DeVries (Pete 'n' Tillie and Reuben, Reuben)--here drew directly on his own family. He and coauthor Philip (who'd died by the time Saturday Night was written) were inspired to write Front Porch in Flatbush by the misdeeds of a third brother, and the musical brims with a Brooklyn bonhomie that recalls Neil Simon's autobiographical Brighton Beach trilogy. Saturday Night could use some trimming, especially in the erratic and somewhat contrived second act (compressing the narrative's time frame would help the story enormously). But Epstein's screwball plot, quirky dialogue, and thorough understanding of his characters' flavorful yet constricted lives anchor the songs in a way that the frustratingly flawed scripts for later Sondheim shows like Company, Follies, and Assassins fail to do.

Set in the spring of 1929, Saturday Night concerns a group of working-class bachelors--lifelong pals in their late teens and early 20s whose extravagant dreams of the swinging single life are continually undercut by the reality of dateless weekends. While Artie, Ray, Ted, Bobby, and Dino seem satisfied (or enervated) by life in Flatbush, their friend Gene dreams of something better--or at least bigger. A runner for a Wall Street brokerage, Gene is an almost pathological social climber; while the other guys hang out at his house in neckties and sweaters (Shifra Werch's period costumes add immensely to the production), Gene dudes up in white tie and tails and crashes debutante balls at fashionable Manhattan hotels. At one such soiree he tries to impress a girl named Helen Fogel by pretending he's a well-heeled hotshot because he thinks she's a southern aristocrat. In reality a Brooklynite herself, Helen is also a bit of a poseur; but what for her is an occasional lark is for Gene a compulsion to reinvent himself. His amusing chutzpah turns into near disastrous hubris when he pulls his buddies into an "investment syndicate": carrying their cash while tooling around in the Pierce Arrow he's borrowed from a wealthy but detested cousin, Gene impulsively uses the money to put a deposit on a Sutton Place penthouse--then takes out a loan to replace the dough using his cousin's car as collateral.

The story grows more and more farcical as the situation whirls out of control, especially when Gene's stuffy cousin is arrested in Gene's place. But a dark current runs under the wacky comedy, though the show's formulaic finish ignores it. Gene and Helen make a charming pair of ingenue lovers in the feel-good finale, "One Wonderful Day," a piece of pure 50s Broadway whose pulsing, oft-repeated hook is designed to send audiences out of the theater humming (in those days, ticket sales depended on a singable score). In real life, Gene's irresponsibility and low self-esteem, the moody Helen's manipulativeness, and the stock market crash would probably have doomed their marriage, with alcoholism and abuse leading to a bitter divorce or Gene's suicide. But the lighthearted Saturday Night shies away from any such notions, ending where a later, darker Sondheim musical might have started.

No one--least of all Sondheim--could write a show like Saturday Night now, which makes its many charms all the more precious. A throwback to the Eisenhower era, it also has the cachet of a "new" Sondheim musical. Solid, old-fashioned, yet eccentrically comic, it's punctuated by musical set pieces that display the young Sondheim's imaginative wordplay. "I Remember That," sung by Gene's married friends Hank and Celeste, is a cunning variation on the reliable conflicting-memories duet ("I was dressed at seven, but you arrived at eight / And you were never late again," sings the wife with a steely edge). Gene and Helen sing along to a record by a Rudy Vallee wannabe in "A Moment With You," its syncopated ending mirroring the scratched record as it skips. "In the Movies," sung by Gene's friends, like other elements of the show establishes the setting with Hollywood references, rhyming "Conrad Nagel" with "bagel" and "Stella Dallas's" with "calluses"; it also reinforces the escapist fantasy running through Gene's role-playing and his hopes for the stock market ("the biggest fantasy of all," someone says). "That Kind of a Neighborhood" is a Whiffenpoof-style chorale paying homage to Brooklyn as "the pride of / the thorn in the side of New York." In the showstopping list song "Exhibit A," Gene's buddy Bobby, a teenage Lothario, itemizes the tools of the skin trade: "A couch must be sprayed with / The fragrance of new pine / And soon all vertical things will be supine / A woman will be at ease / As long as she's smelling trees." Best of all is "Class," Gene's jazzy ode to Manhattan high life: here Sondheim's ear-pleasing verse nevertheless conveys the character's psychological complexity, suggesting the desperation behind Gene's social climbing.

Griffin's breezy staging contains some of the best musical-theater acting I've seen: the performers fully inhabit their roles yet stay true to the show's old-fashioned presentational style. The young cast is uniformly superb; if Ian Brennan and Philip Dawkins (both students at Loyola University yet remarkably poised) stand out, it's because their roles are so rich. Gangly, Tommy Tune-like Dawkins is all Bugs Bunny Brooklyn bigmouthed brashness as self-styled make-out artist Bobby, who's in favor of married women as long as they're not married to him. Brennan as Gene fleshes out the emotional range the script only suggests: from sheepish sweetness in his love scenes with the fine Elizabeth Sayre Yeats as Helen to boisterous macho raffishness with his bachelor buddies (Nico Tricoci, Christopher LoDuca, Charles Karvelas, and Patrick Sarb) to an almost suicidal self-destructiveness as the show approaches its dizzying multiple-twist ending.

Jeff Bauer's simple set, prettily lit by Shannon McKinney, nicely transports the action from a Flatbush front porch to a "swellegant" Manhattan nightclub, framing conductor Thomas Murray's first-rate band in a way that keeps the musicians visible but never makes them obtrusive--appropriate to a show whose main attraction is the composer's eventual stature. It would be nice if Sondheim could give us one of these every year for the next 40 at least.

As male-female comedy teams go, actor-writers Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna never enjoyed the status of, say, Lucy and Desi, Caesar and Coca, or Nichols and May. But just as nothing succeeds like success, nothing in showbiz lasts like longevity: professional as well as personal partners since their 1965 marriage, Bologna and Taylor are still going strong. In this engaging, often uproarious touring evening of stand-up and sketches--previously performed in LA and Florida and angling for an off-Broadway venue next fall--the couple combine anecdotes about their 33 years of "mutual misunderstanding" with scenes from their plays and movies, bits about the battle of the sexes and the generation gap largely inspired by their own mixed marriage: he's "a volatile Italian boy from Brooklyn," she's "an oversensitive Jewish girl from the Bronx." In a scene from It Had to Be You Taylor plays an actress making a mess of an audition: "I was going to be a sex symbol, but I got a very late start." From Bermuda Avenue Triangle comes a marvelous piece of physical clowning, with Bologna as a sleazy gigolo leading the zaftig Taylor through a backbreaking tango. And from their breakthrough hit Lovers and Other Strangers come two scenes: a nervous groom breaking up with his bride-to-be in the middle of the night, and a pair of Italian parents browbeating their son for wanting a divorce: "You're not happy? Who's happy?!"

It's all terribly retro--think Neil Simon crossed with Steve and Eydie--but also terribly funny. This talented twosome have impeccable timing (Taylor's deadpan slow takes are classic), and the chemistry between his gruff tough guy and her frozen-faced flake is a treat. The show's informal minimalism--the set is bare except for his 'n' hers trunks and coat trees for accessories--only heightens the sense that we're watching two old pros having a wonderful time. So did I.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.

Add a comment