A Sonnet for Sondheim, presented by Lexi Sekuless and Belco Arts, at Belconnen Arts Centre Theatre, June 29 – July 2, 2022.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Director, co-producer and performer – Lexi Sekuless
Pianist – Carl Rafferty; Choreographer – Annette Sharp
Performers – Jay Cameron, Katerina Smalley, Martin Everett, Tim Sekuless
Lighting and Sound – Linda Buck and Stephen Rose
My direct experience of Sondheim shows is limited to West Side Story, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods (on stage at the Gunghalin College Theatre, 2015, directed by Richard Block and Damien Slingsby). I never became an aficianado, but A Sonnet for Sondheim shows why I should have.
Through the device – a bit like Chorus Line, or Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth with Hugo Weaving – the cast on stage are themselves, an ad hoc group of actor/singers, telling some of their personal histories and performing audition pieces for a show.
“Don’t worry, just relax – it’s only a play” they sing at the beginning and end from Sondheim’s Ancient Greek musical The Frogs: Parabasis. In my ignorance I have now found from Merriam-Webster that parabasis means “an important choral ode in the Old Greek comedy mainly in anapestic tetrameters delivered by the chorus at an intermission in the action while facing and moving toward the audience.”
I didn’t know this while watching, but I cottoned on to the idea that the show is a kind of meditation on the nature of art, using a collection of items from Sondheim, interspersed with sonnets (from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barret Browning, and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23), and some other pieces from Shakespeare, Browning and Emily Dickinson.
As important as the choice of literary material among Sondheim’s lyrics – very much about the art of creating art, and the art of accepting, maintaining, losing and even escaping from love – is the impressive performance on the grand piano by Carl Rafferty, in the role of audition accompanist, and the neat choreography of the action by Annette Sharp which helps define the character of each actor in their varied solo roles, pas de deux’s and as chorus members.
The quality result in all these departments is excellent music, singing and dancing – yet never in the form of a standard ‘Musical’. The dramatic throughline wanders about rather than creating a strong sense of development to a climactic point. Did any of them succeed in their audition? I’m not sure.
So at the end of the day A Sonnet for Sondheim is an interesting example of something I think of as meta-philosophising on art (parallel to terms like ‘metaphysical’ or ‘metacognitive’ thinking). Clapping at the end of items was generally polite – though genuinely appreciative – and even at the end was not over-excited, because the show is not presented as a popular grand-scale musical entertainment, but is a thoughtful consideration of Stephen Sondheim – Artist.