Pairing the music of Stephen Sondheim with black musical idioms is a dynamic way to rediscover yet again the richness and range of the composer’s works. But Billy Porter has gone one inspiration too far in the world preem of “Being Alive,” a revue he conceived and helmed. In an effort to give structure to the show, Porter has added Shakespeare to the mix, borrowing liberally from the Bard’s greatest hits.
The “Seven Ages of Man” speech from “As You Like It” is the loose outline on which Porter hangs his sketchy-but-still-evocative narrative. But Shakespeare is unnecessary embroidery on this self-evident journey of life, set to more than 30 songs from the Sondheim canon.
Still, there are multiple pleasures in this easy-to-take and often moving revue, which will no doubt have future life — especially if the show can match the caliber of the eight stirring voices (including one in the pit) and quintet of musicians onstage in the Westport production. (Philadelphia Theater Company has scheduled the show in the fall.)
Despite its pretension and sentimentality, there are some truly tender and bracing moments where the show’s ambitions are splendidly met.
Porter arranges an eclectic mix of songs and presents them in an order appropriate — and sometimes not — to the various stages of life: starting from childhood and continuing through adolescence, adulthood, old age, death — and beyond. The tunes find new resonance via jazz, gospel, soul and even a bit of rap. They are stylishly interpreted by arrangers and orchestrators James Sampliner, Joseph Joubert, Michael McElroy and Porter — under Mark Berman’s musical direction.
While some of the tunes fit nicely in the musical style and for the narrative’s purpose, others make for a less-than-perfect fit.
On the plus side is Ken Robinson’s smoky jazz voice leading a quartet of men singing “Pretty Women” to the distaff side of the cast. The cast’s beautifully blended voices turn the instructional wisdom of “Children Will Listen” into gospel truths, while the playful “More” (from the film “Dick Tracy”) gets some girl-group period fizz.
Less successful is a funked-up “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” sung by a sexist stud as his you’ve-got-to-be-kidding girlfriend punches up the tune with some sass of her own. (“This ain’t ‘The Color Purple.’ “) Also, a sexually charged “I Know Things Now” doesn’t fit the tune’s innocent, bouncy rhythms, and “Giants in the Sky” has a specific narrative that also seems like a forced fit.
But as the show proceeds, characters, songs and arrangements more often come together to stunning effect.
Robinson and Natalie Venetia Belcon have two interactive pairings: First as a soldier and his faraway wife (he sings “Losing My Mind” to her “Not a Day Goes By”). But the stunner comes later, after the now-dead husband’s spirit sings “No One Is Alone” to his grieving wife. And just when you feel nothing more can be done to “Send in the Clowns,” Belcon finds new depths by merely humming the song to express her mourning.
Emotions continue to soar with Rema Webb’s maternal spiritual take on “Move On.” Leslie Odon Jr. scores as the gay estranged son in “No More” and Joshua Henry gives a modern “Sportin’ Life” pizzazz to “Live, Laugh, Love.”
There’s a sweet reprise by father (Chuck Cooper) and daughter (N’Kenge, a sensational powerhouse of a singer packed in a lithe body) of “Not While I’m Around” and “Anyone Can Whistle.” But this time brings a reversal of responsibilities, with the daughter as caregiver to an ailing father, transforming the songs sung earlier with a lighthearted spin.
The show’s deeply felt passions are embodied by Cooper as the most recent dearly departed, delivering a robust and transcendent “Being Alive.” The revue climaxes with a stirring “Sunday,” turning the tune into a glorious benediction by the inspired cast. For Sondheim fans, this is the closest one gets to musical heaven.