The Man and The Woman
We meet only two characters—The Man (Austin Cook) and The Woman (Bethany Thomas).
The Man lives a floor above The Woman in a Brooklyn apartment building . It’s Saturday night and each is dealing with the solitude of being single in their own way. Sondheim’s lyrics transport you there. The New York Times Crossword Puzzle may help kill time. Or for The Woman, maybe cooking up a storm. The Man likes to play his piano loudly and she wields a long stick on her ceiling/his floor to register her complaints about the noise. When that doesn’t work she ventures upstairs for the confrontation and the lyrics note that “the war commences…”.
Said war is a love story, actually, told through non-stop song. We feel the explosion of intimacy, sealing the deal with commitment, the ennui and disappointment that ensues in a faltering marriage, the second thoughts and third thoughts and finality of something that both The Man and The Woman come to see was just not meant to be.
Porchlight Hosts Inspired Sondheim Pastiche
What a brilliant stroke by Craig Lucas and Norman René to create this Sondheim opera of sorts by sewing together 20 or so of his songs from 11 Sondheim previous projects such as Company, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, and more. It feels like a continuous torch song fest, with The Man and The Woman passing this torch back and forth and then quenching its flames in water, making us want to weep when we hear the torch sizzle as love dies.
Before the play, the chitchat on the queue was to try to think of ANY Sondheim work that wasn’t about love and longing, as the promotional poster for this show announced. We obviously didn’t know what was in store, but even if we had, as you the reader now do, knowing it is a Sondheim compilation isn’t a spoiler. This format gives Sondheim’s music the juice you rightfully don’t imagine it needs, but then dazzles you with songs singing all the more with this serendipitous infusion of Chi.
Songbirds Sans Par
The secret sauce is quite apparent. If it weren’t for the thrilling vocal range of Bethany Thomas coupled with Austin Cook’s velvet voice, this show probably wouldn’t be the incredible musical treat that it is.
Over the years, chanteuses galore have reveled in Sondheim’s signature sounds. Some of us, for example, may remember Liz Calloway (daughter of the late John Calloway) regaling the Grant Park Music Festival crowd in its tribute to Sondheim when he, almost shyly, stood up from his seat before the Pritzker Pavilion to wave.
No shortage of devoted canaries for you, we know, Mr. Sondheim. Really though, this is one production that more than merits your return visit to the Windy City.
When Austin Cook, the Man, croons about The Woman’s imagined blue eyes, Bethany seems to pluck glamour from the universe as she bathes in his love. When they sing the title song we exalt. When Thomas wraps up her vocal equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest and then burrows deep down in range to the center of the earth to brag about her newfound man who knows how to “foxtrot”, you may find yourself reaching for a cigarette, or thinking it’s time to shower, or any number of other post-coital reflexes except snoring.
When Cook, who sports a beard that makes him look like the ultimate Sondheim meme come to life, shows his stuff on piano, we taste his rapture with the music. He is not only The Man, Cook is the play’s Music Director.
It’s also their spot on acting that immediately transports us into the quasi-plot of this Sondheim pastiche. (Director: Jess McLeod)
It’s a theater in the round presentation with no bad seats,. Then again, none are perfect either. You realize that when you get a chance to watch Bethany’s face reacting to Cook and vice versa. You’ll surely see plenty of these intimate exchanges, but inherent in the round theater experience is a realization that you are missing your share too. It’s occurred to this writer that the only solution is to see the performance again, this time opting for the other side of the theater.
Due warning should be given. Sondheim’s music is an acquired taste. If you haven’t already latched to his sound this is likely not your show. For the rest of us, this is one helluva treat.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this play appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Through May 21.
Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.
Fridays at 8 p.m.
Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m.
Sundays at 2 p.m.
Added matinee performance Thursday, May 11 at 1:30 p.m.
NOTE:There are no 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, April 20 and May 11 and no 4 p.m. performance Saturday, April 22.