Small and sharp

Tell Me on a Sunday

“I’ve got fame on my mind.”

“I’ve got fame on my mind.”

Photo courtesy of New Helvetia Theatre

Tell Me on a Sunday, 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday, October 20; 7 p.m. Sunday, October 27; $20-$30. New Helvetia Theatre, 1028 R Street; (916) 469-9850; Through October 27.
Rated 4.0

We’ve seen many musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber in Sacramento, and they’ve all been huge: The Phantom of the Opera (with its famous falling chandelier) being exhibit A. And I’ll be blunt: ALW’s stage spectaculars often falter after intermission, overwhelmed by their own grandiosity and often-padded length.

Now, New Helvetia Theatre is presenting the composer’s smallest piece, Tell Me on a Sunday, a one-act song cycle—in this case, featuring actress Nanci Zoppi, backed by pianist Graham Sobelman and cellist Timothy Stanley.

The human-scale story is related by a character called Emma, a young Brit who comes to America seeking fame and success. Through the songs, Emma describes several all-too-brief romances with less-than-honorable men as she flits between New York and Los Angeles. (The rest of America is a flyover zone, but we’ll let that go.)

And you know what? ALW’s melodic approach is well-served by the show’s comparative brevity and clean, spare arrangements (also Don Black’s lyrics), with fewer pastiches in borrowed musical styles. I wasn’t entirely sold on Zoppi’s “Britishness,” but her portrayal of a woman-on-the-make—grasping at romantic opportunities and then moving on quickly when things don’t work out—is appropriately bittersweet. Gradually, Emma realizes that she’s using her men, too. Sobelman handles the keyboard part skillfully, but he’s playing an aging piano that should probably be put out to pasture. Stanley’s cello adds class. The set consists of steamer trunks, suitcases, plus hats and clothes (as Zoppi changes outfits between songs); the lighting gets goofy in one number (too many color changes).

Tell Me on a Sunday dates from 1979 (between Evita and Cats), and it’s predigital: Emma keeps posting handwritten letters to Mum. Be advised that this show exists in varying versions, British and American, so it may not synch entirely with other versions you’ve encountered.