Sonnet Repertory Theatre’s benefit, Sonnet Sings: The Bard 2008, welcomed many Broadway stars to support the small theater that “is dedicated to classical theatre for the modern planet.” Since its founding in 2002, the company has performed The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, and Much Ado About Nothing, with Uncle Vanya, Tartuffe, and An Ideal Husband rounding out the productions to include more modern classics. The youth outreach program, Classics in the Classroom, brings “timeless literature through expressive theatre.” With an advisory board including Peter Hedges, screenwriter and director of “Pieces of April” and “Dan in Real Life,” and “Mary-Louise Parker,” Sonnet Rep seems set with a noble artistic goal and support from the creative community.
Susan Blackwell hosted the sweetly informal November benefit with the same foul-mouthed, gutsy vulnerability that endeared me to her Broadway debut role as Susan in [title of show]. Todd Loyd and Tiffany Little Canfield, co-directors of Sonnet Rep, introduced the event, emphasizing gratitude for supporting the company and the arts in general in such difficult economic times. The evening started with the children from the company’s most recent production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performing an excerpt from Act II, scene i, accompanied by the customary ooohs and ahhhs. “How do you follow that?” Blackwell quipped, acknowledging the unmitigated appeal of kids in fairy costumes. Her opening monologue stated, “I’m straight up old school classical, bitches” meaning that she is classically trained, a fact that may not be readily apparent. Preparing the audience for the most dastardly of happenings, she warns: “Fasten your fucking seat belts, keep your arms and legs inside the Shakespearean vehicle,” to witness the telling of an actor’s greatest fear. She then launches into the funniest and most vicariously-horrifying tale: cast as an understudy to Rosalind in As You Like It, then forced into the role without knowing the lines. As she tumbles through the show, cast members move her to different blocking positions and push her off-stage to prepare for the dreaded monolithic epilogue. Just as the audience is enraptured by her looming triumph or belly-flop, she introduces her fellow castmate from [title of show], Heidi Blickenstaff, and the cabaret begins.
Blickenstaff, who replaces the current Ursula in The Little Mermaid on Broadway as of January ‘09, has a strong Broadway voice, satiny harmonies with rough, gritty belting. Her performance of Alan Menken’s “Leaving With Another Guy,” inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is reminiscent of western saloon cabaret, very jangly but with a modern pop sense. It is a fitting selection from The Little Mermaid’s composer’s plethora of film and Broadway work; Blickenstaff was a little off-balance of her normal excellence due to prop issues but recovered well.
Blackwell next welcomed Celia Keenan-Bolger (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Light in the Piazza, Les Miserables revival) singing “Call It Winter,” inspired by Sonnet 56 and composed by [title of show]’s Jeff Bowen. She sang sweetly, innocently of optimistically braving through the winter to see the loving summer on the other side; Keenan-Bolger’s rendition had a 1960s dreaminess that fit the sharply witty and poignant lyrics. The evening also included “Dreamgirls” composer Henry Kreiger, with his strong profile revealing years of experience, performing his musical interpretation of Sonnet 38. Bobby Lopez (co-collaborator of Avenue Q) sang his composition of Sonnet 18—created when he was only 18—a dark, fluid theater song with a touch of teenage melodrama. Orlando Bloom-like Paris Remillard and Kaitlin Kiyan channeling Carole King brought their duet from the summer’s revival of Hair, “What a Piece of Work Is Man,” lyrics from Hamlet, to the stage.
Rick Lyon (Avenue Q) won the hearts of the children fairies, child-hearted adults, and Susan Blackwell with his friend, a Kermit-like frog puppet. The copyrights to the superstar are heavily guarded, so Lyon said to “think of [him] as a drag queen” of the original, like Barbara or Cher’s most devoted admirers. With his performance of “Off to Denver” from Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx’s "Kermit, Prince of Denmark," helped by Paul David Story (Equus), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Passing Strange, Wig Out!), and Blackwell as the flight attendant, Lyon and his Kermit-ish friend had the audience clapping and cheering.
If Lyon and Kermit brought down the house, Matt Cavenaugh (A Catered Affair, Grey Gardens, Urban Cowboy) brought it to a halt. With his youthful, dreamy face and sweet voice, it is no surprise that he will be Tony in the much-anticipated revival of West Side Story. He sang “O Mistress Mine,” inspired by Twelfth Night, composed and accompanied by Stephen Flaherty (composer, Ragtime, Seussical), with an occasional lilt over a purposeful steadiness, an almost sorrowful sincerity, that held the audience, including small fluttering children, in pin-drop silence. Most of the song passed before I could shake the spell to see that everyone else was mesmerized, as well. It was also a personal triumph to realize that I was sitting at the same table as Flaherty, and I literally had to hold my friend’s arm to keep her from bursting into “Wheels of a Dream” for him and his guest.
Blackwell comes back to satisfy the audience’s desire to hear the end of her tale, and she recites the dreaded prose. Although she compared the epilogue to “the spider monster at the end of a Stephen King novel,” she confidently performed with understated grace and clear simplicity, Rosalind’s epilogue:
It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue; but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue. If it be true that good wine needs no bush, 'tis true that a good play needs no epilogue. Yet to good wine they do use good bushes; and good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues. What a case am I in then, that am neither a good epilogue, nor cannot insinuate with you in the behalf of a good play! I am not furnish'd like a beggar, therefore to beg will not become me. My way is to conjure you, and I'll begin with the women. I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as please you; and I charge you, O men, for the love you bear to women (as I perceive by your simp'ring, none of you hates them), that between you and the women the play may please. If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleas'd me, complexions that lik'd me, and breaths that I defied not; and I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces, or sweet breaths, will for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell. (As You Like It)