In a way you can trace the rise of the Boston area’s midsize theaters to how well they’ve done the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston “Assassins” in 1998, the New Repertory Theatre “Sweeney Todd” in 2003 and SpeakEasy Stage Company “Passion” later the same year, were each kind of a game-changer for the companies, signaling that they had taken their art a step further.
All three have begun the year with a contemporary musical, a testament not only to the prowess of the companies, but to the growing pool of local singing talent today. I don’t think all three theaters could have simultaneously staged a musical 10 or 15 years ago with such fine singers in each production.
The Lyric begins its season with “Sweeney” (through Oct. 11) — do we really need another one? PBS is about to show the Bryn Terfel-Emma Thompson version, maybe the 2000th incarnation since the New Rep’s fine production.
I’m glad they did, though. Nobody does Sondheim better locally than Spiro Veloudos, the Lyric’s artistic director. Here he brings a real humanity to each of the characters, particularly by dropping the Gothic staging of most productions and doing away with the garish makeup of Sweeney (Christopher Chew) and Mrs. Lovett (Amelia Broome). Full review here.
“Closer Than Ever,” at the New Repertory through Sunday, is not a Sondheim musical, but follows in his footsteps in terms of the the subject matter. Frayed relationships. Loneliness. Longings for passion spent. All that good stuff.
And it is good stuff in the hands of the quartet performing the tuneful though not terribly memorable songs of David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr., led by Leigh Barrett who doubles as the director of the show. It’s only here through Sunday so you might want to make it a priority. Full review here.
Sondheim’s legacy isn’t all to the good. As he shifted the focus of the musical to grayer hues of human behavior, many composers took that as a cue to write depressive, dissonant tunes — if you can call them tunes — that go nowhere.
That’s too often the case with the songs of composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie in “Far from Heaven” at SpeakEasy Stage Company (through Oct. 11.) Witness Miró:
You wouldn’t think that a musical could work without good music, but it does. First of all the source material is great — Todd Haynes’ remarkable 2002 film, a much smarter, less pandering view of race relations in the ‘50s and ‘60s than the Huntington Stage Company’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Director Scott Edmiston and the design team do such a nice job of capturing the lushness of the film that you always feel you’re in the presence of something special. And even if the singing isn’t great, two of the next generation of Leigh Barretts — Jennifer Ellis and Aimee Doherty — are the real deal. Full review here.
With these three productions, you can always trust the singer, even when you can’t trust the song.