Sondheim Nights

Brian Porter performs "Sondheim Nights" three times in this year's Piccolo Spoleto Festival. Kevin Thorn is at the piano.

Eight years after co-founding What If? Productions, Kyle Barnette and Brian Porter are taking their act on the road — about 4.5 miles west, to be precise.

The company’s Piccolo Spoleto production of “Sondheim Nights,” the third in its popular Piano Bar Series, is headed to the West Ashley venue called The Schoolhouse.

“It is literally right over the bridge from downtown, ... in a really cool area that we, as a theater company, are very interested in making ... our home,” Barnette said. 

It's part of an effort by the Office of Cultural Affairs to bring more entertainment to West Ashley. What If? Productions also is presenting Nakeisha Daniel’s solo show “A Raisin in the Oatmeal” at The Schoolhouse. "Oatmeal" is about the challenges faced by African-American women in the theater. (“Sondheim Nights” also will be performed at City Gallery on June 8.)

The first Piano Bar Series production, 2017’s “An Evening with Brian Porter,” was such a success that the company added a performance. The second installation, “Holiday Mixtape,” is set to return for this year’s holiday season. For the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, Barnette and Porter decided to pay tribute to composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Porter knows the depth and breadth of Sondheim’s impressive repertoire, from popular musicals like “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd” to the five songs Sondheim wrote for the 1990 movie “Dick Tracy.” As a result, Porter said, the first draft of the set list included 80 tunes.

The final cut includes some relative obscurities, but also plenty of music people will recognize.

“More than any other composer, his musicals and his songs are all stories,” said Porter, who recently took over as executive director of Footlight Players. “There’s no fluff. Every single song he does means something.”

Barnette said the stripped-down performance, featuring five singers and a pianist, suits Sondheim’s style perfectly. Also featured on the program are singers Tiffany Gammell, James Ketelaar, Nakeisha Daniel and Madelyn Knight.

“The way he composes a song, the rhythm and the pitter-patter, is very conversational,” Barnette said. “Instead of seeing it on stage in the full costumed event, you’ll hear us talk about the song and what it means to us. It makes for more of a casual, intimate experience.”

With What If? Productions’ ninth season starting in September, two more Piano Bar Series shows are already in the works, including one with what Barnette calls a bit more mainstream appeal.

“The next one is actually going to be ’80s and ’90s pop music,” Barnette said. “We'll break down some pop hits and do a retro piano bar. We want to do some shows that have some standards and more contemporary stuff, too.”

J.R. Pierce is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.