DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – Success comes in sizes – Small, Medium, Large, Extra Large and, in one special case, Elephant. 

The scale of Stephen Sondheim’s imagination and output as a Broadway musical composer is on display in an ambitious multimedia presentation by St. Norbert College Music Theatre – Summer Stage in Dudley Birder Hall. 

Screened scrapbook-like photos, an array of video interviews and projected visual artistry are woven around performances by 11 singers and pianist/co-director Kent Paulsen. 

What happens in “Sondheim on Sondheim” is like thumbing through an encyclopedic biography/autobiography with songs and stories.  

Along the way, Stephen Sondheim describes the making of songs for some shows, tells his philosophy of what a lyric is and becomes Sweeney Todd at the piano – to give just a few examples. The corker is him telling how his aging mother informed him in a note that she regretted he was born. Whew! 

The company of well-experienced and highly trained singers ably tackles the challenges of 40 songs, plus a few samples from more. 

Stephen Sondheim died in November 2021 at age 91. For a production to be offered on a college campus some distance from the bustle of the Great White Way is akin to a Midwest memorial service on a large scale. 

Appreciation is everywhere in the performances. Stephen Sondheim wrote complex word/musical patterns, and the singers dive into the deep end of the pool with confidence. 

The show includes popular favorites, but not end-to-end. It’s more into analysis than cherry picking. Stephen Sondheim is seen in some TV interviews, but more often he picks his own brain about how a song came to be or what he thought about collaborating or how he went about writing – lying down, writing with a pencil on a pad of yellow paper of 32 lines a page. 

Directors Kent Paulsen and Stephen Rupsch had plenty of music and motivation to develop with their nifty cast. The material is dense, and many songs involve choreographed visual and movement elements and acting. 

Excellent moments abound. Here are six – a totally unfair number – but I am not going to go on the length of the show: 

One. An excited, rapid-fire burst of energy and sung dialogue by Molly Maher Lucareli in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” that describes the ins/outs, ups/downs of teamwork that’s wearing thin. This is enacted singing. 

Two. Also lively and enacted is “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” with Kaara McHugh and Ben Olejniczak bouncing off each other while letting fly with colorful singing. Adding to the fun is they are married. 

Three. Brennan Heider pours it all into “Being Alive,” building power, determination and expression in the final notes. 

Four. Vocal luster fills a two-song duet of “Losing My Mind” by Alona Havel and “Not a Day Goes By” by Kaara McHugh. 

Five. Tim Olejniczak provides the handsome voice as an animated image is projected of a portion of George Seurat’s “Sunday in the Park” (popular name) – as if the artist is slowly painting the focal woman. The music-visual combination is for “Finishing the Hat.” Ahhh… artistry on multiple levels. 

Six. In the first half, “Send in the Clowns” is featured in video snippets as it is performed in a vast aural landscape from the likes of Judy Collins, Frank Sinatra and Bernadette Peters to a kid on off-key trumpet to a sweet-sounding girl who closes by saying, “I hate it.” The hit is repeated as a kind of climax to the show with Linda Feldmann finessing the song’s soul in sensitive, beautiful reflection. 

A whole lot goes on in “Sondheim on Sondheim” because a whole lot went on with the guy. Not many community-based performance entities would – or could – take on the kaleidoscopic show. Music Theatre – 60 years old this summer – has the expertise to do it justice.  

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Running time: Two hours, 47 minutes 

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. June 24; 2 and 7:30 p.m. June 25; 2 p.m. June 26 

Info: snc.edu/tickets 

Creative: Broadway conception and direction – James Lapine; music and lyrics – Stephen Sondheim; video – Peter Flaherty; orchestrations – Michael Starobin; arrangements – David Loud; St. Norbert Music Theatre producer – Management team: Paul Mashl, Kent Paulsen, Michael Rosewall, Stephen Rupsch; directors – Kent Paulsen, Stephen Rupsch; technical director – Paul Mashl; lighting designer and video technician – Scott LaPlante; audio engineer – Alex Sudbrink 

Cast: 

Linda Feldmann 

Alona Havel 

Brennan Heider 

Rob Konitzer 

Molly Maher Lucareli 

Kaara McHugh 

Nick Myers Olson 

Ben Olejniczak 

Tim Olejniczak 

Michelle E. Oren 

Paula J. Tolksdorf 

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Songs 

Act I 

Overture – Kent Paulsen, piano 
“Invocation”/ “Forget War” – All 
“Love Is in the Air” – All  
“Comedy Tonight” – All 
“Take Me to the World” – Paula J. Tolksdorf 
“So Many People” – Linda Feldman, Tim Olejniczak 
“Something’s Coming” – All 
“You Could Drive a Person Crazy” – Ben Olejniczak, Kaara McHugh 
“The Wedding Is Off” – Kaara McHugh, Alona Havel 
“Now You Know” – Michelle E. Oren 
“Franklin Shepard, Inc.” – Molly Maher Lucareli, Linda Feldmann, Nick Meyers Olson 
“Good Thing Going” – Brennan Heider 
“Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” – Male ensemble 
“Epiphany” – Rob Konitzer 
“Fosca’s Entrance (I Read)” – Alona Havel, Ben Olejniczak 
“Is This What You Call Love?” – Ben Olejniczak 
“Loving You” – Alona Havel  
“Happiness” All 
“Ever After” – All 
“A Weekend in the Country” – All  
“Sunday” – All 

Act II 
“Entr’acte” – Kent Paulsen, piano 
“God” – All 

“Losing My Mind”/“Not a Day Goes By” – Alona Havel, Kaara McHugh duet 
“Opening Doors” – Ben Olejniczak, Kaara McHugh, Molly Maher Lucareli, etc. 
“The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened” – Michelle E. Oren 
“Multitude of Amys” – Brennan Heider 
“Happily Ever After” – Nick Myers Olson 
“Being Alive” – Brennan Heider 
“Ah, But Underneath” – Michelle E. Oren 
“In Buddy’s Eyes” – Linda Feldmann 
“Something Just Broke” – All  
“Gun Song” – Rob Konitzer, Nick Myers Olson, Ben Olejniczak, Paula J. Tolksdorf 
“Do I Hear a Waltz?” – Kaara McHugh 
“Smile, Girls” – Molly Maher Lucareli 
“Finishing the Hat” – Tim Olejniczak 
“Beautiful” – Paula J. Tolksforf, Tim Olejniczak 
“Loving You” – Alona Havel, Michelle E. Oren, Paula J. Tolksdorf 
“Children Will Listen” – Ben Olejniczak, Kaara McHugh, etc. 
“Send in the Clowns” – Linda Feldman 
“Company – Old Friends” – All  
“Anyone Can Whistle” – All 

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THE VENUE: Dudley Birder Hall at St. Norbert College is located in the former St. Boniface Church at the corner of Fourth and Grant streets in De Pere. Following renovation at a cost of $1.7 million supported by donors, the hall was dedicated and opened Feb. 14, 2013. Much of the work inside the church involved the installation of professionally designed, custom-made acoustical materials for state-of-the-art sound quality. The space is multi-purpose space. Seating accommodates approximately 200 persons. The walls and towering arches of the former church are painted cream white. Above are acoustical clouds. The raised stage is spacious and airy. The St. Boniface building dates to the late 1800s and is a landmark for its classical exterior and clock tower. 

THE PERSON: Known for an outgoing personality, enthusiasm and attention to detail, Dudley Birder started on the St. Norbert faculty in 1958. He founded Music Theatre in 1962. The Collegiate Chorale and the Swinging Knights show group were his other creations. Dudley Birder produced musicals for the college and community into 2017 and concerts into 2018. After Birder retired from teaching, he continued as conductor of the Dudley Birder Chorale of St. Norbert College and artistic director of Music Theatre of St. Norbert College. He fully retired June 1, 2018.