Corrections or additions?
This review by Deb Cooperman was prepared for the April 19, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `Side by Side by Sondheim’
`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
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.
– Deb Cooperman
"Side by Side by Sondheim," through Saturday, May 13, Off-Broadstreet
Theater, 5 Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. $25.25 to $27. 609-466-2766.
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