Theater in the Round (Up): ‘Wicked’, Sondheim’s ‘Company’, John Lennon musical

theater wicked Sondheim
‘Company’ hits the stage at Forrest Theatre Nov. 28.
Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

What’s the latest on Philadelphia’s theater scene? Metro has the scoop.

Now through Nov. 26, the 20th anniversary of Stephen Schwartz’s ‘Wicked‘ takes over the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Academy of Music. Singing loud the origin story of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ for this production are two local women as its leads: Wilks Barre’s Celia Hottenstein as Glinda and New Jersey’s Olivia Valli as Elphaba.

Calling while on tour, Hottenstein discussed spending the last several years as Chistine in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ before joining the Broadway ensemble of ‘Wicked’ and her crowning as Glinda.

“It’s exactly six months that I’ve been on tour as Glinda, and I’m loving it,” said Hottenstein, sharing praise for Broadway’s original Glinda, Kristin Chenoweth. “When I got the call to be Glinda, it was a very emotional moment for me. I can’t believe I get to play this role every day.”

Heaping praise on her friend, fellow touring alum Valli — granddaughter of Four Seasons’ vocalist Frankie Valli — with whom she shares her favorite ‘Wicked’ song, ‘For Good’, Hottenstein is happily challenged by the pressure of ‘Wicked’s 20th anniversary.

Joan Marcus

And for local friends and devoted fans of ‘Wicked’ dressed in witch-y green, Hottenstein will appear at the stage door after each show for photos and autographs.

“That was such a big part of my youth, waiting for the stars of the show come out from backstage. I love making Glinda special for fans.”


Philadelphia lyricist-musician Mare Rozzelle has been about the business of creating her first musical in dedication to The Beatles’ John Lennon – ‘New York Letters’ – since 2018. Now, on Nov. 20—as part of the Louis Bluver Theater at The Drake’s MusicCoLab developmental workshop— ‘New York Letters’ gets its first staging. Rozzelle wrote her musical’s book and lyrics for 10 of its 12 songs, while British composer Glenn Prangnell wrote its music. This after ‘New York Letters’ original composer, John Stevens, passed away in 2021, and new music had to be penned.

“I’m a hardcore Beatles fan, and loved the idea of writing lyrics in the style of John Lennon, and the future possibility of getting Paul McCartney’s attention,” said Rozzelle who initially released ‘New York Letters‘ as a concept album on June 18, 2022, McCartney’s birthday.

“What I love about John Lennon’s work is his conversational style of lyric writing as if he’s speaking directly to you, which is why I felt making the songs into letters made perfect sense. Add to that the fact that Lennon was a prolific letter writer. Listening to his music is like reading his diary. It’s so very personal. And Lennon’s time in NYC was poignant because it represented a period of personal activism, artistic growth, personal transformation, and ultimately, a tragic and untimely end to a remarkable life and career. His legacy as a peace advocate and musical icon continues to resonate with people around the world.”

Rozzelle has an amazing director planned for ‘New York Letters’ in Bryan Hagelin and hopes her Lennon musical hits Philly Fringe 2024.

“In the meantime, I’m submitting the show to every play development opportunity that comes my way,” said Rozzelle.


With Broadway’s mega-successful revivals of ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, the upcoming run of his posthumous ‘Here We Are’ Off Broadway, and the extension of ‘Assassins’ at Philly’s Arden, 2023 is Stephen Sondheim’s year. Next up: a revival of Sondheim’s snarkiest relationship musical, 1970s ‘Company‘, and its gender-switch of its main character from male to female. Taking on the role of the 35-year-old Robert (now Bobbie) for Philly’s Forrest Theatre run (Nov. 28 to Dec. 10) is Beth Stafford Laird.

Childhood choir singer for Wayne Presbyterian Church, one-time dancer at Philadelphia’s Koresh company and an alum of Peoples Light’s pantos, Laird is no stranger to Sondheim, having toured ‘Sweeney Todd’ in her recent past.

“What separates Sondheim from other composers is that he’s unafraid of making his audience uncomfortable,” she said. “Sondheim’s lyrics ask the difficult questions because they’re so pointed and get at deep-core emotions. Pairing these lyrics with equally challenging melodies – they’re not always beautiful, rather they’re crunchy and distorted – highlight the more difficult aspects of humanity.”

‘Company’ is doubly challenging in that it has transferred its design’s action from the 1970s to the present day, and looks at the life of the unmarried 35-year-old Bobbi, weighed against the married couples of her friends.

“I loved the collective craziness of each character… and at the risk of sounding like a narcissist, I imagined myself playing Bobbi when I first saw ‘Company’,” said Laird.

Regarding Sondheim’s gender-switcheroo, Laird wondered out loud “what were the social implications of an unmarried man in 1970 vs an unmarried woman in 2023? That discussion doesn’t have one particular answer, but I do think many women feel pressure to get married or judged if they’re not. Sondheim’s verse on that question takes on a different timbre when that same conversation is had between women. You’re hearing the same words and music, but through a new set of ears.

“Bobbi’s songs such as ‘Marry Me a Little’ ask why we are alone, why we’re afraid of relationships, what they’re ideal person may be – but the larger context comes out in how Bobbi relates to married friends. Comments such as ‘you’re not getting any younger’ hits different on a woman than a does a man. And Sondheim makes this all so exciting.”