Stephen Sondheim’s music has become so familiar that it’s easy to forget how experimental it is.
As two of the lyricist-composer’s scores are performed live in Los Angeles, listeners can renew an appreciation for his willingness to break rules as he developed distinct sounds for projects literally worlds apart in location, time period and subject matter. In the early-career “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” from 1962, he delivers vaudeville-like novelty numbers for a comedy written in the style of ancient Rome. For “Pacific Overtures” from 1976, he adopts the airy, minor-mode sounds of traditional Japanese music to accompany a piece about that nation’s reaction to the gunboat diplomacy that American Commodore Matthew C. Perry used in 1853 to open Japan to trade.
The former is at the Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank, the latter presented by Chromolume Theatre in Los Angeles’ Mid-City. Performed with tiny bands, these productions may not deliver the full complexity of Sondheim’s compositions, but the intent comes across well enough. What’s more, every word in these intimate settings is easily heard.
In other respects, Chromolume summons enough style and vision to make its “Pacific Overtures” seem substantial even though all of the elements are small-scale. The Marshall gives “Forum” a much grander staging, yet a dearth of ideas leaves the show seeming puny.
“Pacific Overtures” draws from the heavily stylized Japanese theater tradition of kabuki. This conveys a sense of a culture preserved in amber, which is in keeping with the subject, for at the time of Perry’s arrival, Japan had shut itself to outsiders for more than 250 years.
John Weidman’s text is sprinkled with haikus and parables. Sondheim’s lyrics are pared to a comparable less-is-more spareness. His melodies are sometimes delicate as rice paper, sometimes — in the manner of kabuki — dramatically percussive.
Scrappy Chromolume — known for its devotion to musicals, especially Sondheim’s — is not daunted by the piece’s challenges. Director James Esposito devises a clever construct to help limit the audience’s expectations to what is achievable in a 49-seat space: His players are a traveling troupe who arrive carrying a trunk and assorted props.
Performing against a vaguely kabuki-theater-like backdrop of blond wood (set design by Hector Figueroa), the players use paper fans to punctuate their lines or to suggest scenic elements, such as the sails of the American ship. Dressed in nondescript gray, the actors slip into colorful kimonos as they shift into character (costumes by Kara McLeod).
Kabuki’s traditions include men playing women’s roles, a convention followed here, although Esposito casts a woman whose multiple roles are particularly poignant. He forgoes kabuki-style whiteface makeup, used in the original and many subsequent productions, but his performers maintain a sternness of expression and stiffness of body that subtly evoke the style.
The cast is mostly young, but veteran actor Paul Wong ably occupies the central role of the Reciter.
The music is exceptionally difficult, and some singers hit pitches more squarely than others. Fortunately, the cast includes a standout tenor, Gibran Mahmud, who is wisely deployed as the lead voice on such key songs as the delicate “There Is No Other Way,” the alarm-raising “Four Black Dragons” and the luminous yet blood-chilling “Pretty Lady.”
The three-person band of acoustic piano, upright bass and percussion performs just behind the scenery, which, unfortunately, muffles the sound.
Choreographer Michael Marchak devises a dramatic sequence of sweeps, whirls and percussive feet for Commodore Perry’s threatening dance, performed by Kevin Matsumoto in a long white wig and Stars-and-Stripes robe.
Cesar Cipriano exudes quiet bravery as a minor samurai sent to expel Perry, and Peter Jeensalute — wearing a thoroughly masculine goatee — mines the humor of a shogun’s scheming mother in “Chrysanthemum Tea.”
“Forum” is about as different from this as any show could be.
Inspired by the ancient Roman comedies of Plautus, it is populated by such popular stock characters as the lecherous old man, the braggart soldier and a crafty servant or two. Built for laughs, the story — by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart — involves thwarted love and long-lost children, plus a touch of social commentary: The central character is a slave who yearns to be free.
Sondheim’s songs manage to be radical while seeming entirely unradical. In keeping with the simplicity of the story, they are pleasurable, straight-ahead, often-comic tunes, like vaudeville songs interspersed among comedy acts. In 1961, they flew in the face of the integrated, story-forwarding songs brought into vogue by Richard Rodgers and Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. Of course, Sondheim is, most of the time, a great practitioner of the Rodgers & Hammerstein style; his numbers are often described as one-act plays in song. But here, having fun, he came up with some of his most hummable melodies.
“Forum” is the second production at the rechristened, 130-seat Garry Marshall (formerly Falcon) Theatre. The presentation looks substantial, with its sturdy Roman house fronts (designed by Fred Kinney), Technicolor lighting (François-Pierre Couture) and shimmery togas (Jessica Champagne-Hansen). But as directed by the Marshall’s artistic director, Joseph Leo Bwarie, it is thin on ideas. The show is meant to be jam-packed with boisterous, vaudeville-style, physical humor; Zero Mostel led the original cast. Yet here the visual jokes fill only about half of the time, leaving the performers otherwise stranded and slowing the show’s momentum.
For three weeks in the middle of the run, the Mostel-originated role has been played by New Kids on the Block member and actor Joey McIntyre. As a fast-thinking slave who tries to unite his young master with an unattainable girl, he is expected to be the main engine of sight gags, but he’s a lawnmower motor instead of a V-8, showing little affinity for this style of performance. Beginning Dec. 14 the dependable character actor Paul C. Vogt is scheduled to return from another performing assignment to retake the role, and his strong comic instincts no doubt will rev things up.
For nonstop funniness, viewers currently must wait for the entrance of Clayton Snyder as the braggart soldier. Preening, flexing his muscles and hoisting his nose in the air, he is an Olivier of overacting. He also possesses a hyper-masculine baritone, with which he solidly delivers his songs.
Another vocal standout is Michael Thomas Grant as the young master. He has a sweet, ringing tenor that, along with his junior varsity good looks and adorably floppy hair, ably conveys his character’s puppyish lust in such songs as “Love, I Hear.” Seen and heard far too little is mezzo-voice Candi Milo as a domineering wife and mother. Portraying an old man, E.K. Dagenfield, in the smaller of his two roles, proves an audience favorite as he shuffles at tortoise speed, Tim Conway style, when sent on the ludicrous task of circling the seven hills of Rome.
Becca Sweitzer’s choreography for a parade of courtesans mixes showgirl and strip joint sensibilities, the sort of daffiness that should be pumping through the rest of the production.
Instrumentally, the music sounds overly synthesized, with the band’s electric keyboard dominating its upright bass, reeds and percussion.
One might round out a Sondheim listening party by catching one of the ongoing screenings of the National Theatre’s London production of “Follies.” Sondheim’s songs for the 1971 show are written in a decades-spanning range of popular American song styles meant to evoke the music that would have been performed between the world wars in a Ziegfeld Follies-like revue. In National Theatre’s staging, the show looks and sounds glorious.