Life gets commingled with art in “Moving On,” which takes a nifty idea for a Stephen Sondheim revue and then renders it in terms that are, as the British like to put it, naff. In his 70th birthday year, Sondheim deserves a smart new compilation show, and, structurally at least, this Bridewell Theater’s concoction has the potential to be precisely that. What’s required now are a radical overhaul (a new cast wouldn’t hurt) to flesh out a rewarding concept, if “Moving On” is ever to move on beyond a limited life on the London fringe. (Show concluded its scheduled run Aug. 19.)
Co-deviser (with John Kane) and director David Kernan certainly knows his chosen terrain, being an alumnus a quarter-century ago of the most successful Sondheim revue to date, “Side by Side by Sondheim.” (Kernan nabbed a 1977 featured actor Tony nom for that show’s Broadway transfer.) And whereas the utterly misbegotten “Putting It Together” tied itself into ludicrous knots trying to link the material — the more recent revue hasn’t worked in any of its various incarnations — “Moving On” has a simpler solution: let Sondheim serve as his own compere.
And so we have the various (taped) musings — often with photos to match — provided by the composer that allow for deliberately loose groupings of songs on matters ranging from fellow collaborators and his family to partners and posterity. (That last topic prompts — rather drolly, too — “There Won’t Be Trumpets.”) “As far as life, death, God and salvation, I pass,” Sondheim is heard remarking, while the five performers segue into “With So Little To Be Sure of” from “Anyone Can Whistle”: the comment in life followed by its decades-earlier analogue in art.
The device may sound precious but in fact comes across as entirely liberating, not least because it allows for musical clusters across a wide spectrum of work without needing to worry about the practicalities of plot.(That’s what from the outset sank “Putting It Together.”) Sondheim’s reference to his “belief and delight in large passionate statements” leads on to “Loving You” from “Passion,” with “I Do Like You” an utterly reasonable follow-on from its creator’s thoughts on friendship. The hefty choice of songs is appealing, too, in its avoidance of the predictable: “Send In the Clowns” is missing but not missed (too overexposed!) while such curiosities as “Multitude of Amys” and “The Old Piano Roll” — once part of “Company” and “Follies,” respectively — make the final cut.
Still, it’s one thing to have the idea and an altogether different one to execute it, however able the small band that trots through some 40-plus songs. In 1997, the Bridewell bravely mounted the professional world premiere of Sondheim’s first musical, “Saturday Night,” and then did such a botched job that it took the recent Off Broadway CD of the same show to set the record (pun intended) straight. Similarly, the “Moving On” company are clearly game for a challenge that they’re just not up to, although Angela Richards, for one, brings a Sondheimian astringency — and humor — to such divergent assignments as “Broadway Baby,” “By the Sea” and an unusually reflective Mama Rose.
The other distaff players make an odd pair, to put it mildly, as they parade up and down scant steps that pass for Peter Docherty’s set. “Carrie” survivor Linzi Hateley conveys the same wide-eyed eagerness she brought to one of Broadway’s all-time flops without, at least at the perf caught, retaining the vocal heft. (Her “I shall marry the Prince of Wales,” during “The Miller’s Son,” gets a properly wry laugh; well, this is Britain.) A spindly Belinda Lang seems to be this revue’s Diana Rigg stand-in, minus the class or the dress sense: her outfits differ in both acts but are similarly unflattering. The two men, Geoffrey Abbott and Robert Meadmore, are interchangeably smug and narcissistic, with a busily tapping Abbott getting the bulk of Warren Carlyle’s banal choreography.
Small wonder, then, that one is thrown back for succor on Sondheim, the cumulative yearnings and questing of the music once again giving the lie to those who regard his output as cold. It’s the level of emotional investigation (not to mention investment) on display that make “Moving On” perhaps worth revisiting in more fortuitous surrounds. At the same time, one has to wonder about a tribute to Sondheim ending with the exhortation from “Dick Tracy’s” “Back in Business” to “let the good times roll.” Good times and Sondheim? I don’t think so, which is one reason why his greatness resists bland, all-purpose smiles in favor of the far darker corridors of art.