Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Being Alive

photo: Richard J. Termine

Roughly two dozen Sondheim songs are re-imagined (mostly in the r&b idiom) and performed by an African-American ensemble in this confused and overly ambitious revue, conceived by Billy Porter and currently running in Westport. One of the aims is for a fresh new spin on the songwriter's material. Instead, the music often sounds like a bad concept album by The Fifth Dimension. The show does the nearly unimaginable: it makes Sondheim sound pedestrian. Walkouts began at the preview I saw around the half hour mark and continued steadily, with a few especially noisy and disgruntled ones for Natalie Venetia Belcon's eleventh hour all-hummed "Send In The Clowns." I don't object that these songs have been re-imagined, but I do object that the results here are numbing and diminishing on stage: the few moments that do spark some dramatic interest are the ones which are performed closest to how the songs were written to be sung in the first place with minimal musical re-invention. (Joshua Henry's heartfelt rendition of "I Remember" from Evening Primrose is the show's highlight) As if the Sondheim Goes Black conceit was not enough, there's another that has the performers quoting lines from Shakespeare plays between songs, and as if that also isn't enough to bite off and chew, the book makes a feeble attempt at a story. Sample song-segue dialogue: "What's all this talk about giants in the sky, son?" "I'm all alone, Mama" "No, no one is alone". Being Alive is the kind of out-there risk that only well-meaning, highly creative people can think up and take, but in this case, the risk doesn't pay off.

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