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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

"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.

– 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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