‘Right here We Are’ Assessment: The Final Sondheim, Cool and Impossibly Stylish

Stephen Sondheim had a genius for style. A few of his greatest works have been tailored from very area of interest sources like penny dreadfuls (“Sweeney Todd”), epistolary novels (“Ardour”) and Roman comedies (“A Humorous Factor Occurred on the Technique to the Discussion board”). Leaning laborious into their particular types, he mined their expressive potential in songs that might hardly be improved and by no means sounded alike.

Nonetheless, for him and for others, surrealism was typically a style too far. Musical theater is surreal sufficient already. (Why did that taciturn man abruptly begin singing? Who’re these dancing girls in lingerie?) Constructing a present on a willfully irrational supply dangers doubling down on the weirdness, resulting in “Huh?” outcomes like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” and Sondheim’s personal “Anybody Can Whistle.”

In order we waited what appeared like a long time for what would grow to be his final musical, by no means fairly understanding if he’d ditched it or not, the dribbles of data he and his collaborators let drop urged that the brand new present — finally titled “Right here We Are” — is perhaps misbegotten.

Not solely are the 2 Luis Buñuel movies that Sondheim and the playwright David Ives took as their inspiration maximally surrealist, they’re additionally surreal in numerous, seemingly incompatible methods. “The Discreet Appeal of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) is a sunny romp a couple of group of mates who, looking for a meal, are mysteriously unable to seek out one. “The Exterminating Angel” (1962) is a a lot darker affair, about a cocktail party nobody can go away. Each motion pictures ridicule aristocrats who’re underfed but over-sated: individuals for whom nothing is ever sufficient. However one is just like the silky tartness of a lemon meringue pie and the opposite like hen bones caught in your throat.

The very best excellent news about “Right here We Are,” the combo platter Buñuel musical that opened on Sunday on the Shed, practically two years after Sondheim’s loss of life in November 2021, is that it justifies the concept of merging these two works and succeeds in making a surrealist musical expressive. In Joe Mantello’s breathtakingly stylish and comely manufacturing, with a forged of can-you-top-this Broadway treasures, it’s by no means lower than a pleasure to observe because it confidently polishes and embraces its illogic. Musically, it’s absolutely if slightly skimpily Sondheim, and fully worthy of his catalog. That it is usually a bit chilly, solely sometimes transferring in the way in which that tune would ideally enable, could communicate to the explanation he had a lot hassle writing it.

The primary act, about an hour lengthy and with maybe seven numbers — although it’s laborious to depend as a result of they weave out and in of the dialogue — introduces us to Ives’s American variations of Buñuel’s French gourmands from “The Discreet Appeal of the Bourgeoisie.” Leo Brink (Bobby Cannavale) is a crass tycoon and Marianne Brink (Rachel Bay Jones) a society decorator; their Saturday morning is interrupted when 4 of their circle arrive on the couple’s hyper-sleek condominium, insisting they’ve been invited for brunch.

The interlopers embody Paul Zimmer (Jeremy Shamos), a plastic surgeon celebrating his 1,000th nostril job, and his spouse, Claudia Bursik-Zimmer (Amber Grey), an agent, she brays, for “a significant leisure entity.” Together with them are Raffael Santello Di Santicci (Steven Pasquale), the horndog ambassador from a Mediterranean nation known as Moranda, and Fritz (Micaela Diamond), Marianne’s bitter youthful sister, a revolutionary with champagne tastes.

Ives shortly and amusingly delineates the six with particular and virtually universally obnoxious traits. Raffael, who butchers his English, and Claudia, fast to drag rank, have a weekly assignation behind Paul’s again; Paul and Leo run a drug cartel with Raffael’s ambassadorial help. Fritz is a tablet. As they go on the highway looking for a meal, accompanied by a Sondheim vamp that begins out marvelously jaunty and ends like water swirling down a drain, every reveals worse and worse traits, aside from Marianne, who is simply too dim to be venal. When she asks her husband to “purchase this good day” for her, it appears much less acquisitive than sentimental.

The adjustments of surroundings as they go to varied institutions that includes outré waiters (Tracie Bennett and Denis O’Hare) in ever extra ludicrous wigs (by Robert Pickens and Katie Gell) are completed with swift grace on David Zinn’s shiny white field of a set, as neon marquees descend from the flies after which descend additional to type tables or banquettes. (Zinn’s costumes are additionally telegraphic, together with Leo’s velour sweatsuit and Claudia’s sky-high purple Fendis.) The theme-and-variations format is enchanting, permitting Sondheim, the good puzzler, to deal with songs virtually as anagrams. Ultimately, together with three different characters they choose up — a colonel (Francois Battiste), a soldier (Jin Ha) and a bishop (David Hyde Pierce) — the crew lands, by now ravenous, at Raffael’s embassy, the place they dine as Act I ends.

Right here the musical hinges into “The Exterminating Angel,” solely as a substitute of a totally totally different set of characters (Buñuel’s have been Spanish, dwelling beneath Franco), Ives, in a neat piece of joinery, continues with Leo and Marianne and the others. It’s they who discover it unimaginable to depart after dinner, and wind up, in Act II, sleeping, bickering and finally preventing over meals scraps as their metaphysical entrapment persists for days. Ives additionally complicates Buñuel’s antifascist, anti-bourgeois glee, during which plutocrats are uncovered as pigs, by implicating the revolution as nicely; Fritz seems to be much less of a risk to her personal lifestyle than she supposed.

Intelligent as all that’s, the windup has issues, as is true for a lot of new exhibits discovering their last form. To make the characters in “Right here We Are” worthy of punishment within the second act has meant making them too clearly terrible within the first. Their brutishness all through additionally lets us off Buñuel’s hook: His motion pictures are about individuals whose sophistication and disposable earnings we must always acknowledge, however “Right here We Are,” which generally looks like a butterfly field, is about individuals we don’t dare to.

Had Sondheim written extra songs for Act II — there are only a few, bunched firstly — that drawback might need been eased. In any case, Mantello and Ives determined to reframe the dearth as a chance. Earlier than his loss of life, Sondheim apparently agreed with them that the shortage of songs in truth made structural sense: As soon as trapped in a repeating nightmare of deprivation, these characters would haven’t any purpose to sing. However then why retain those he’d already written?

Maybe as a result of the songs he did write are every part you would need them to be. There are fewer trick rhymes than traditional, however laugh-out-loud jokes nonetheless. A rhapsodic love tune for the soldier and a paean to superficiality for Marianne — “I would like issues to gleam./To be what they appear/And never what they’re” — have the acquainted Sondheimian depth and luster to crystallize complicated insights.

Although we sorely miss that in Act II, and particularly on the tried triple lutz of an ending (which might be two lutzes too many), Ives, the writer of “Venus in Fur” and innumerable intelligent comedies, has accomplished a lot to compensate. A few of his dialogue scenes — together with a riveting colloquy between the questing Marianne and the questioning bishop — have the form, rhythm and sorrowful wit of a Sondheim tune. (Jones and Pierce are standouts within the wonderful forged.) Additionally lovingly filling in blanks are the musical supervisor, Alexander Gemignani, and Sondheim’s longtime orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, who’ve organized themes from the sooner a part of the present as instrumental interludes to take up the slack within the later half.

You’ll be able to perceive their care. Pending the invention of some unpublished juvenilia or one more iteration of the penultimate “Highway Present,” that is the final Sondheim musical we are going to ever have. That alone makes the manufacturing historic, a stress that fortunately doesn’t present within the product, which is fleet and flashy. Natasha Katz’s lighting, Tom Gibbons’s sound and Sam Pinkleton’s droll choreography do quite a lot of the heavy lifting for Mantello’s agenda.

Extra vital, “Right here We Are” is as experimental as Sondheim all through his profession needed every part to be. To swim by its currents of echoes of earlier work — some “Anybody Can Whistle,” some “Ardour,” some “Merrily We Roll Alongside” — is to grasp the characters’ monstrous insatiability. We, too, will all the time need extra, even after we’ve had what by any cheap requirements ought to already be greater than sufficient.

Right here We Are
By means of Jan. 21 on the Shed, Manhattan; theshed.org. Working time: 2 hours and 20 minutes.

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