In 1976, actor-director David Kernan created the Sondheim revue “Side by Side by Sondheim,” which went to Broadway and London and, according to Kernan’s bio, has become “the most performed small-scale show in the history of the theater.” (Translation: It’s a dinner-theater fave.) Kernan returns with another Sondheim revue, “Moving On,” which opened in London last year to celebrate Sondheim’s 70th birthday and is receiving its U.S. premiere at the Laguna Playhouse in a beautifully sung, always entertaining production. The show doesn’t provide any great revelations, and it’s not nearly as well crafted a revue as its predecessor, but the songs, more than 40 of them, sure are fine.
Revues of this sort do tend to have a tacky feeling to them, and “Moving On” is no exception. The performers throw on a smile or a tear for each song to accompany rhythmic arm-waving choreography and group hugs.
There are those mini-medleys, in which disparate songs on similar themes get combined in an act of over-arranging. And then there’s that all-purpose plastic-looking set, with multiple levels, sextagonal platforms and a plethora of little steps; the whole thing ends up resembling nothing so much as a decorative fountain.
None of it really matters, though, when the songs are delivered with this kind of vocal quality. The performers, two look-alike men and three women, are veterans of Broadway and/or national tours, and a couple of them have originated Sondheim roles. They all have opportunities to demonstrate their talents, with Tami Tappan standing out as the most consistently connected to her material.
The interstices between songs contain audio clips of Sondheim talking about his life, some biographical facts, some descriptions of his collaborators (Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein) and some opinions on the craft of writing or the even more difficult craft of living. These are accompanied by a mini-slide show projected onto the panels in the rear of Dwight Richard Odle’s set — there’s young Stephen as a baby, in his military-school uniform, as a teenager at the piano, etc.
The excerpts from this interview, which Kernan conducted, form a running commentary on the songs, but not a particularly revealing one. There’s one point where Sondheim talks about how he thinks he’s “romantic,” but in the sense of being drawn to the “grand passionate statement.” Kernan follows this comment with some traditionally performed love songs, defeating the point.
Some of the songs selected also were used in “Side by Side by Sondheim.” The composer, of course, has done a lot since then, and there’s a fair selection from “Sweeney Todd,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods.”
Also included are a couple of songs from Sondheim’s first musical, “Saturday Night,” and from his film work — the show ends with “Back in Business” from “Dick Tracy,” gussied up as a patriotic anthem. “Passion” is represented with two entries, while “Assassins,” unfortunately, appears not at all.
It’s not really an exciting compilation, and it never adds up to more than the sum of its parts. But the parts are enough.