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What Makes a Master

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YOU'RE GONNA LOVE TOMORROW--A STEPHEN SONDHEIM EVENING

Pegasus Players

"It's the pebble, not the stream / It's the ripple, not the sea / Not the building, but the beam," sings a character in Pacific Overtures, Stephen Sondheim's musical about the establishment of trade between Europe and Japan. Sondheim examines big issues in their tiny, telling details; in his shows emotions come to new life through the idiosyncratic expressions of quirky individuals. Though Sondheim's famous for brilliant, tricky rhymes, what makes his scores last is his understanding that it's not the words that grab us but what those words tell us about the character--not the message but the person. Sondheim's songs are especially refreshing after a dose of the preachy, overstated, simplistic rhetoric offered in Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr.'s lyrics for Miss Saigon. Pegasus Players' production of You're Gonna Love Tomorrow serves as a welcome reminder of what sets a master above the hack pack, showcasing a wealth of intelligent, emotive singing by a young and talented cast.

Created in 1983 for concert presentation in New York, You're Gonna Love Tomorrow assembles vintage but mostly lesser known examples of Sondheim's work. This is a straightforward revue of songs written for shows; Paul Lazarus's narration establishes the setting of each selection. The repertoire spans 30 years, from Sondheim's first professional effort in 1954, the unproduced Saturday Night, to Merrily We Roll Along, from the early 80s. For every famous tune like "Send in the Clowns" or "Being Alive" there are three others most audiences have never heard--though Chicago audiences have heard more of them than most, thanks mainly to Pegasus Players. Material from Pacific Overtures, Anyone Can Whistle, and The Frogs (Sondheim's swimming-pool version of Aristophanes' comedy) reminds us of the revelatory, often sublime Pegasus productions Victoria Bussert staged in the mid- to late 80s.

In the last few seasons Bussert's work at Pegasus has been less stimulating, displaying a kiddie-show broadness perhaps meant to please Big League Theatricals, the New York company for which she has staged touring versions of Into the Woods, Barnum, and Buddy . . . The Buddy Holly Story. You're Gonna Love Tomorrow finds her back in good grown-up form: the show is staged simply, elegantly, and with a keen eye toward suggesting rather than belaboring the songs' emotional subtexts.

Under Bussert's sensitive guidance and Michael Thomas's superb musical direction the eight-person ensemble, accompanied by rich double-piano arrangements played by Mary Claire Cadieux and Thomas, generally make the most of every offbeat, introspective moment of Sondheim's unfailingly witty, psychologically unpredictable mini-dramas. Though the songs are out of context, these actors find the dramatic moments in each that establish character. And one of the attractions of a show like this is hearing performers in roles they wouldn't have a chance to play in full-scale productions. Short, squat Kelly Ellenwood is an exceedingly unlikely choice for Philia, the virginal blond beauty in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; and diminutive Keith Anderson's probably not going to get cast as Philia's stalwart lover Hero, either. Yet they make the romantic "Echo Song," in which Hero woos Philia by repeating her phrases, musically beautiful as well as deliciously comic. And though slim, boyish Tina Gluschenko lacks both the looks and the pipes for A Little Night Music's bittersweet ode to premarital promiscuity, "The Miller's Son," her depth of feeling and thoughtful responses to the lyrics offer insights I've never gotten from anyone else.

Other highlights of this 90-minute, intermissionless production include Ellenwood's rafter-raising rendition of "Being Alive," Company's breakthrough embrace of love and commitment; Rebecca McCauley's steely, yearning "Another Hundred People," also from Company (but McCauley's reading of A Little Night Music's "Send in the Clowns" is too luxuriously wistful for this stringent, much-misunderstood song); Christine Janson's addled innocence and southern-inflected scooping on the giddy "This Is Nice, Isn't It?" from Saturday Night; Anderson and Todd Foland's walking and running in place to create a fine impression of two friends racing as they sing haiku improvisations to each other in "Poems," from Pacific Overtures; Foland and Gluschenko's heartrending "With So Little to Be Sure Of," from Anyone Can Whistle; Nikkieli Lewis's hopeful, boyish tenor in the lyrical "Johanna," from Sweeney Todd; and Jeff Max's red AIDS-memorial ribbon when he sings the one non-Sondheim lyric of the evening--"Fear No More," from Shakespeare's Cymbeline, with its famous refrain: "Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney sweepers, come to dust." Every one of these songs burns with a fresh individuality; and there are plenty more like them in the show.

Russ Borski's visual design, complementing the evening's focus on tune and text, is a model of simplicity: the costumes are basic black tops and trousers adorned with just enough jewelry to highlight the actors' forms and faces; the mostly black, nearly bare stage is decorated with just a few chairs. On the back wall neon lights periodically burn to reveal clever, colorful shapes one at a time--skyscrapers and street signs, columns and curlicues, and in the center a red heart: larger than life and slightly frayed around the edges, like the people who populate Stephen Sondheim's standard-setting, one-of-a-kind musical mini-dramas.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studios.

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