Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents “Sondheim on Sondheim”

Daniel Lopez and Rachel Bay Jones perform in Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s “Sondheim on Sondheim,” backed by the Kansas City Symphony. (Credit: Don Ipock.)

Rounding out an eclectic season, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City finished the year with “Sondheim on Sondheim.” It’s a musical revue of Stephen Sondheim’s career as composer and lyricist, his development as an artist woven into a tapestry of some of his best loved works and others less well known. Lyric Opera’s presentation was an enjoyable musical evening, despite some lusterless production values.

The show, a mix of video elements and live performance, delved into Sondheim’s life and work, covering his 60+ year career. (“Sondheim on Sondheim” premiered on Broadway in 2010, when Sondheim was 80. His career had started in earnest in the 1950s, just a few years before he teamed up with Jerome Robbins and Leondard Bernstein as the lyricist for “West Side Story,” which premiered in 1957. He died in 2021.) 

Long time Sondheim-collaborator director James Lapine conceived the original production. Sondheim’s skill as a storyteller—evidenced in the musical selections—was emphasized by footage of interviews that were projected on a screen: the way he introduced an idea, the pauses, the glint in his eye as he set up the crux of an anecdote with a one-two punch. These landed well, with either chuckles or gasps from the audience. 

They used songs from 16 of Sondheim’s shows, originally scored for an eight piece band. This version featured the Kansas City Symphony on stage, with Andy Einhorn on the podium. Einhorn had worked with Sondheim and Lapine, and conducted the original Broadway version. Einhorn led the group with crisp, effective, unfussy gestures, trained in the confines of the theater pit and never a distraction from the vocalists. The orchestra sounded great, playing with restraint, threads of solo timbres emerging at just the right time.

Ken Cazan directed this concertized production, with a bit of movement and choreography from the cast. The show was fast paced, moving song to video to song. This did lead to some awkward transitions, when the opera-trained audience applauded at length after particularly fine solos, but the vocalist was already preparing for the next scene’s set up. It would have been nice to plan or adapt for those moments and have the soloist take the deserved extra bow, instead of sitting in shadow off to the side. 

Most of the vocal cast, a mix of Broadway veterans and up-and-coming stars, made their Lyric Opera debut with the show on Saturday night in Muriel Kauffman Theatre in Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

The evening’s two show-stopping numbers came from Cassondra James on “Send in the Clowns” and Tamar Greene on “Being Alive.” 

Greene’s interpretation of “Being Alive,” from 1970’s “Company,” was easily the strongest moment of the entire show, showing us the character’s arc from love skeptic to embracing his vulnerability and want, a guaranteed tear-jerker when done right (and it was done wonderfully). 

Tamar Greene in a showstopping performance of “Being Alive,” during Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s “Sondheim on Sondheim.” (Credit: Don Ipock)

James’ had a winsome, smiling presence overall, but her take on “Send in the Clowns” brought to the forefront the wistful defeat of the song from “A Little Night Music,” a chagrined acceptance that resonated with the audience. 

Cassondra James in Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s “Sondheim on Sondheim.” (Credit: Don Ipock)

(There are parts of the presentation where you have to remind yourself the video element is “of an era,” specifically the YouTube montage for “Send in the Clowns,” which would have been cutting edge in the earliest decade of the 21st century, but looks dated now.) 

Rachel Bay Jones, who had a lovely, gentle tone packing a ton of Broadway power, was an impressively versatile performer. She gave each moment distinct character, excellently nuanced, as though she stepped out of the original scene, not just stepping in for this one show, particularly in “Beautiful,” from “Sunday in the Park with George.” 

Kanisha Feliciano and Krista Renée Pape (a LOKC Resident Artist) were charming performers throughout. Their duet on “Happiness,” from “Passion,” was nicely paired with Sondheim discussing his hesitation to embark on a relationship until later in life. While this song was originally written for a man and woman, having a same-sex couple sing it emphasized Sondheim’s identity as a gay man and how that influenced his art.   

Rachel Bay Jones in Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s “Sondheim on Sondheim.” (Credit: Don Ipock)

James Patterson gave his all in “Epiphany” from “Sweeney Todd,” Daniel Lopez drew you in with his introspective “Finishing the Hat,” and Danny Kornfeld gave a twitchy and barely-holding-it-together performance in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” navigating the cringey/funny moment with quivering energy. These three were featured in “Gun Song,” from 1990’s “Assassins, which hits differently now and with oh so much tension.

These different voices combined remarkably well in the ensemble numbers. The zany “Comedy Tonight” cutely ran the gamut of musical theater dance cliches. Act I ended on “Sunday” from “Sunday in the Park with George,” with Sondheim’s contrapuntal genius displayed in what is essentially a list of colors and shapes moving from a whisper into rallying triumph. In Act II, “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods” wrenched at the heart, the cast grasping hands, the message in the piece an opportunity to reflect on the far reaching impact of our intentions, be they ultimately good or bad. 

A strong cast for Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s “Sondheim on Sondheim.” (Credit: Don Ipock)

Musically, it was a well done production; visually, it was rather stark. While opera is known for its grand theater, this looked spartan. Budgetary necessity may demand a company eschew big sets and large casts, but just because it’s concertized musical theater doesn’t mean it should look like a company is cutting corners. The set design was reminiscent of a corporate retreat presentation, with a single screen and simple black curtain (and a weird band of shadow across the bottom of the screen). The orchestra in white shirts and black pants gave off community band vibes; simple concert black would have streamlined the look. There were few songs with distinct lighting choices, and not much color or texture overall. Recently, shows in Helzberg Hall with the symphony and other ensembles include backlighting and other effects, and some tonal shifts from piece to piece would have added richness to the overall experience.

As the Lyric Opera incorporates these types of shows into their season, I hope they bring the fullness of the operatic attitude to similar productions. Last season’s “Lyric Opera Goes to Hollywood” was a successful exploration of the concept. Next season, they have planned a semi-staged “Journey to Valhalla,” which will surely warrant suggestions of extravagance and depth. 

Reviewed Saturday, May 6, 2023. For more information, visit kcopera.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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