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Guggenheim Entertainment’s New Venture Hits the Ground Running With “Sondheim on Sondheim”

Leave it to Guggenheim Entertainment to launch an ambitious new theatrical venture with an equally ambitious live show, Sondheim on Sondheim, James Lapine’s 2010 revue of the musical theater giant’s six-decade career.

But the Guggenheims have a long record of success with ambitious ventures—about 30 years worth. In the 1990s the family-run company brought Schoolhouse Rock Live! To theaters and schools throughout the Bay Area.

Guggenheim Entertainment is the creative child of husband and wife team Scott and Shannon Guggenheim and Scott’s brother Stephen Guggenheim—all talented and award-winning producer-director-performer-author-composer-business managers. Scott Guggenheim is a graduate of Santa Clara University, as are several members of the Sondheim cast, and the family are long-time Santa Clara Valley residents—like many in the show’s cast.

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In 2003, the Guggenheims introduced the world to their Meshuga Nutcracker, pairing Tchaikovsky’s familiar music with Chanukah stories. Fathom Events filmed the show and distributed it to about 400 theaters across the U.S. for limited showings last December.

In 2009 the Guggenheims took over the shuttered Century 25 movie theater, renovating it into the Retro Dome and offering a double bill of retro movies and live stage shows, including the debut of their original musical Thanks For Playing…The Game Show Show!, which won BroadwayWorld.com’s 2012 Best Musical and Best Director awards.

Since the owner pulled the lease on the Retro Dome in 2013, the Guggenheims have been on a search for a new theatrical home. And although it took a long time, they finally found it last year in another past-its-prime theater complex, Camera 3 in downtown San José, which has been transformed into 3Below: a home for live theater and films—as well as continuing to host San José’s long-running improve comedy show, Comedy Sportz.

The new 3Below opened earlier this month with a Sound of Music sing-along, and last week debuted its first live show with Sondheim, the engaging and often moving show featuring a film of Stephen Sondheim telling stories of his life and work and a cross section of songs from the prolific songwriter’s shows.

Not just a parade of songs, Sondheim taxes performers to create the atmosphere of 19 different musicals and their varied moods in split seconds. Guggenheim’s talented octet of local performers—Jim Ambler, Amy Bouchard, Stephen Guggenheim, Susan Gundunas, Jeremy Kreamer, Hayley Lovgren, Martin Rojas Dietrich and Theresa Anne Swain—were up to it.

With crisp staging and pacing that never lagged the ensemble moved from number to number, keeping the audience engaged every minute. From the light-hearted Comedy Tonight (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) to the dark heart of Loving You (Passion), the singers made every number a compelling vignette that highlighted Sondheim’s unique power to paint musical pictures of human feelings, conflicts, self-deceptions and dark impulses.

While the performances were uniformly excellent, three were particularly notable.

Stephen Guggenheim’s Epiphany (Sweeny Todd) conjured a truly frightening picture of the pathological Sweeny Todd, driving home the tragedy that turned Todd monstrous.

Rojas Dietrich’s Being Alive (Company) gave a spellbinding voice to bachelor Bobby’s yearning for love and his simultaneous fear of disappointment and hurt.

Gundunas did an outstanding job of making Send in the Clowns (A Little Night Music) her own—in a field of some 50 covers (by one estimate)—in a gentle rendition that captured the sadness and regret beneath even the brightest smiles and sparkling successes.

Sondheim by Sondheim: Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Conceived by James Lapine. Produced, directed and choreographed by Scott and Shannon Guggenheim. Music direction by Stephen Guggenheim. 3Below Theaters, 288 S. Second St. San José, through Feb. 4. For information and tickets visit 3belowtheaters.com or call (408) 404-7711.

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