What's perhaps most beautiful about the QC Theatre Workshop's Last Call: The Songs of Stephen Sondheim - aside from it showcasing music by, arguably, our greatest Broadway composer - is the way show creators Tyson Danner and (Reader employee) Mike Schulz weave a story through their revue, offering more than just an "in concert" experience. There's a natural progression throughout the piece, which they've set in a bar where individuals and couples gather to drink, socialize, long for love, or lament love lost. Rather than having a distinct plot and conflict, the production delivers a look at a typical bar evening in which the audience gets to eavesdrop on every table conversation and watch as people mingle, flirt, and attempt to repair relationships. And the flow of this slice of life as told through song is to be admired particularly because it lacks pretense and feels real.
Kimberly Kurtenbach Furness starts Last Call's evening by longing for love in her rendition of "Being Alive" from Company, during which, in one of several clever arrangements by music director Danner, James Fairchild's bartender interjects with a lyric from Into the Woods' "No One Is Alone." (Furness then responds to Fairchild with an adroit "I wish" from the same song.) Shortly thereafter, two couples - Angela Elliott and Patrick Gimm, and Sara Tubbs and Mark Ruebling - dream of a "Country House" before Gimm and Ruebling recognize each other as "Old Friends." Allison Swanson and Erin Churchill soon take seats at another of the set's tables, explaining the reason for their girls' night out with "There's Always a Woman" before proclaiming their friendship in "I've Got You to Lean on."
Don Denton is the final patron of the evening, first greeting his friend Fairchild with Dick Tracy's "Live Alone & Like It" (one of four songs employed from that film, all of which are among my favorite Sondheim compositions). With its sense of "evening at a bar" established, director Schulz then proceeds to have cast members go up to the bar to order drinks, or exit to the bathroom, or move to another table - sometimes while singing in mid-"conversation" - to be with someone else. And rather than feeling staged and specifically timed, all of these actions are executed just as naturally as they would on a real night out.
While some of the women, on Friday, struggled to hit a few of the higher notes, and some of the men fell on the side of melodic speaking rather than beautifully toned singing, the performance's flaws did little to inhibit the enjoyment of Sondheim's music and the ways in which it's used by Schulz and Danner. (The latter accompanies, with remarkable musicality, every song from a "bar piano" in the corner of the stage.) Their work is most notable when they change the compositions' original intent. Dick Tracy's "More," for instance, is no longer a show-stopping dance number, but Tubbs' chance to brag about her life of excess to Elliott - who earned quite a few opening-night laughs for her barely masked feigned interest, and her eventual, unspoken "Well, yeah" response to Tubbs' question "Or does that sound too greedy?"
Another example is Assassins' attempted-murderer duet "Unworthy of Your Love," which, here, Furness performs seductively to Gimm while Fairchild, singing with sadness, watches her, the object of his affection, turn her attention to another man. Schulz and Danner also make a great choice in following Fairchild's performance of Company's "Have I Got a Girl for You" - a song in which in which he describes Swanson as "dumb" - with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum's "Lovely," which finds Swanson singing "I can neither sew nor cook nor read or write my name."
But aside from Denton's exquisite singing voice (best showcased in "Marry Me a Little"), Elliott's showstopping "Could I Leave You?" (with its forceful, independent-minded ending), and Furness' "Ladies Who Lunch" (combined with the shame she registers following this delightfully drunken musical outburst), what's most brilliant about the QC Theatre Workshop's Last Call: The Songs of Stephen Sondheim is Danner's climactic combination of "Being Alive" and "No One Is Alone." The two songs fit so well together, at least as Danner has arranged them, that even considering the production's charmingly woven tale and effective performances - to say nothing of Sondheim's music - this blended number, to me, is reason enough to catch this production before it closes.
Last Call: The Songs of Stephen Sondheim runs at the QC Theatre Workshop (1730 Wilkes Avenue, Davenport) through November 17, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)650-2396 or visiting QCTheatreWorkshop.org.