‘Side by Side by Sondheim,” currently on the boards at Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell, is neither a play nor a standard musical with a story arc that begins, gets complicated, and resolves with tunes laced throughout. Conceived long before the success of the new “jukebox musicals,” like “Mama Mia” and “Jersey Boys,” this tribute to the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim — a Tony award-winning giant of 20th century musical theater — the show has been impressing audiences with the complex and varied canon of Sondheim’s music since it was first produced in 1976 as a fundraiser. “Side by Side by Sondheim” wound up running over a year on Broadway, and is now a staple in regional and community theaters. Sondheim penned the lyrics to “Gypsy” and “West Side Story,” and the music and lyrics of “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Into the Woods,” and “Assassins.”)
In lieu of a plot, from time to time the players offer narration between the songs — providing insight into Sondheim himself rather than a set up to the songs. And although each song tells a story, it isn’t always easy to follow the narrative when they are taken out of context from the plays for which they were written. Instead, “Side by Side by Sondheim is like a variety show — comprising little vignettes created out of the wonderful music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.
So what a review of a show like this boils down to, in this case, is the strength of the production, and more specifically, the strength of the performers. And in this show, the performers are all capable, but some more than others.
Sondheim’s music is not easy to sing, with its huge vocal ranges, wild modulations, and the intricate harmonies that are part of the Sondheim signature. But the crew at Off-Broadstreet are up to the challenge. Director Robert Thick and musical director/piano player Kenneth P. Howard have assembled an incredibly competent group of performers. Sarah Donnor, a graduate of Westminster Choir College, has sung with the Royal Christmas Tour featuring Andrea Bocelli; Jamal Sawab is an alumnus of the American Boychoir School and has been performing professionally for over 15 years. Musical director Howard, who plays piano onstage and sings a couple of numbers, is a graduate of Westminster Choir College as well. Michelle Russell, the final member of the performing foursome, doesn’t say where she was trained in her program bio, but trained or not, she can really sing.
This cast clearly has the vocal chops, but with a musical review, the thing that makes or breaks the evening is acting ability; simply put, you can either sell a song or you can’t. And this group has some mixed success in that arena.
When Donner sings “I Never Do Anything Twice,” a song that comes from the television movie musical, The Seven Percent Solution,” about a woman who engages in all sorts of kinky activities she has tried (in the original show, the singer is a madam), Donner can’t seem to really let loose. Her voice is clear and nearly perfect, but her sweet demeanor — even with some simple choreography that has her vamping around the stage — couldn’t convince me that she was the wild, adventurous woman who tells her latest conquest, “Once, yes, once can be nice, love requires some spice…but I never do anything twice.” Donnor’s talents are far better utilized in tandem with her fellow performers in numbers like “The Little Things You Do Together,” which she performs with Sawab, and in the humorous “Can That Boy Foxtrot” with Russell, numbers that seem to bring out a bit more playfulness, which serves her well.
Sawab has a lovely voice, and he appeared to relax as the program went along, adding more heart to his performance. At the end of the first act, when he takes on the role of third “girl” in the Andrews Sisters-inspired “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” and in his solo “Could I Leave You?” he seems to be having a lot of fun, and when he does, the audience does too.
Howard has the most thankless songs in the show — the quiet ballads “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Take Me To The World” — but his voice is compelling with a richness reminiscent of John Raitt.
But even with the classically trained voices of the others in the cast, they can’t top the stage presence of the ebullient Michelle Russell. She sings ballads and belts out more robust numbers with equal facility but it is her ability to “sell” a song that makes her stand out from the rest of the cast. She sasses through “Broadway Baby,” practically channeling Bernadette Peters (a popular interpreter of Sondheim’s music), as she slinks around the stage; powerfully captures the spirit of Anita from “West Side Story” when she sings “A Boy Like That” (even though, with her red hair and round face she looks about as far from that character as could be); and is convincing and inspiring in “I’m Still Here,” a song that is sung in “Follies” by an older showgirl, who has been there and done it all.
Sondheim’s songs are known for mining rich and varied stories, often about the complications and ups and downs of relationships, and in the hands of Russell, stories are actually told. She infuses each of her songs with a subtext that makes them more than just a pleasant tune sung by someone with a great voice, but rather a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Robert Thick’s simple set consists of risers at varying levels with a light blue backdrop dotted with glittering stars. The simple first act costumes consist of black shirts and pants with each performer wearing a different colored sweater vest. In the second act, the black pants remain, and purple tops (mercifully) replace the sweater vests.
“Side by Side by Sondheim” has a lot of songs that you may recognize including “Send In The Clowns,” “Losing My Mind,” “One Hand/One Heart,” “If Momma Was Married,” and plenty more that you probably know from musicals that don’t get produced much anymore. But it also has, as Sondheim’s song from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” says, “something for everyone.” And although some performances in Off-Broadstreet’s production are stronger than others, it is all around delightful something.
“Side by Side by Sondheim,” through Saturday, May 13, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. $25.25 to $27. 609-466-2766.