The apprenticeship of Stephen Sondheim culminated with mentor/neighbour Oscar Hammerstein assigning the budding 15-year-old composer to write four musicals: one based on a play he admired, another on a play he liked but thought flawed, one a dramatization of a non-play and one an original piece.
A fearless quartet of local companies has joined forces to complete Hammerstein's famous curriculum under the title Stephen Sondheim's Excellent Adventure. It's an inspired idea, as it allows young interpreters free rein to present a series of scenes from classic works of art that have little to do with the works of this year's master playwright, who makes a brief appearance, cracking up as he reads The Cat in the Hat.
Sondheim's first task is satisfied with a scene from Samuel Beckett's existential tour-de-force Waiting for Godot, in which the tramps Vladimir (Kevin Ramberran) and Estragon (Thomas Toles) rap about the futility of their lives while "chillin' by the tree," missing the man. The two actor/writers capture the pointlessness of their characters and get a few laughs doing it.
The pair return for two more rap-filled scenes during the 100-minute evening: one that is inspired by Oscar Wilde's comedy of bad manners The Important of Being Earnest and the other by Sophocles' epic tragedy Oedipus Rex.
While there is the requisite bickering in the former, Ramberran and Toles excel in the never-dramatized final battle between Oedipus and the Shepherd.
Oedipus (Toles) pulls out what we expect to be a sword, but what turns out to be a wireless microphone, which he uses to amplify his threats to make shepherd's pie out of his adversary. The Shepherd replies with an age-old profanity that is connected to Oedipus marrying his mother, before the hostility ends with brooches in the eyes. Sondheim might not have done his homework this way, but the actors entertained, if not edified.
The flawed piece of the evening is a tribute to David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago called F*CK, which traces the start and finish of a brief relationship between Danny (Jeremy Rampton) and Deb (Kerri Woloszyn). Their budding romance is undermined by Danny's loutish buddy Bernie (Joshua Banman), who cloaks his fear of women under a stream of misogynist banter. Mamet's portrait of fickle urban singles is filled out with Deb's skeptical Grade 3 teacher friend, Joanie (Dana Smith).
For all its profane dialogue, talk of threesomes and watching girl-on-girl porn, there is little satisfaction enjoyed by the foursome, who find sex easy but love unattainable. The same can be said for the audience, which has seen this once-potent scenario become ho-hum with the passing decades. Banman and Smith make their flashier roles feel authentic.
Feathers Become Her, by Shadling Productions, is a dance piece that plays off the ballet Swan Lake. The title body of water harbours exploited woman like Odile, on the run from her domineering dad. Dancers Katrina Grogan-Kalnuk, Lulu May, Helena Colley and Lisa Baran create an evocative scene to the flute accompaniment of Claire Morrison. Sondheim-lovers without a dance background will have a hard time accessing the nuances of Feathers Become Her.
The evening climaxes with the new musical called By George, which is the name of the comic musical the teenage Sondheim gave to the esteemed Hammerstein, who, in reaction, assigned him the four musicals to pen for homework. This By George by Naughty Sailboat's William Jordan and Kevin C. Houle, with guitar music again by Morrison, is a sophomoric lark that involves Boston Puritans, a sash-wearing squash, a penetrated pig and a hero who appears handsome enough but whom every character regards as hideous.
George (Ryan Ash) is a Harvard graduate in need of a job, but the only work he can get is emptying the sty of a pig named Leslee. When the pig becomes pregnant, the manure hits the fan and the appalled George is put on trial before a magistrate (Jordan) just in from England.
About the time the pig squeals on the stand, many in the audience on Tuesday were surely looking forward to the next night's opening of the true Sondheim masterworks, Follies and Into the Woods.
Stephen Sondheim's Excellent Adventure
Naughty Sailboat et al.
Until Feb. 2 at Studio 320, 320-70 Albert St.
óè Tickets: $12, $10 students/seniors
óè Three stars out of five