Profits and pleasure. Both words accurately describe the happy circumstances of Signature Theatre’s current revival of Side by Side by Sondheim. Profits aplenty for Signature as a legion of Sondheim fans make the theater’s turnstiles sing. And pleasure is exactly what that audience will get as they enjoy this lively, never-a-dull-moment, first rate production.
A musical revue-compilation of Stephen Sondheim hits and near hits, Side by Side was first put together in London in 1976 as a tribute to composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. By that time he had already evolved into perhaps the greatest talent of his Broadway generation and it seemed like a good time to do a retrospective.
The show has retained that focus on Sondheim’s earlier works, occasionally swapping a song out here or there. This bouncy, kinetic new production by Signature is the revue’s latest iteration.
The format is simple. A narrator—or in this case, multiple narrators—sketches out Sondheim’s early biography, which encompasses the usual strokes of fortune and misfortune. These anecdotes include the persistent belief by Broadway producers that Sondheim was “only” a lyricist. Fervently believing in his own compositional talents, we can only imagine Sondheim’s frustration as he attempted to evolve his career, no doubt enduring the kind of sneering George Gershwin had to put up with when he took on the stodgy universe of classical music and opera.
Obviously, like Gershwin, Sondheim broke through the barriers, becoming in the process that rare double-threat: a multi-talented, highly original lyricist who could pen popular tunes to match. The lyrics and tunes are often devilishly complicated, musically as well as psychologically. Among other reasons, that’s why—reportedly to the composer’s chagrin—even some opera companies have begun to appropriate his dark masterpiece, Sweeney Todd, into the operatic repertoire, perhaps a long overdue facelift for this genre. Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
But we digress. Signature’s bright, bouncy revival of Side by Side is breezy, enjoyable, and, at times, genuinely moving. That’s due not only to Sondheim’s obvious talents but to the terrific set of skills Signature’s indefatigable cast has brought to this show.
Singer-dancers Sherri L. Edelin, Nancy Anderson, and Matthew Scott along with duo-pianists/accompanists Gabriel Mangiante and music director Jon Kalbfleisch bring both oomph and intellect to bear as they briskly but skillfully impersonate myriad Sondheim characters and scenes throughout an entire, fast-paced evening. The show is polished, professional, and filled with musical and human insight. You can’t do much better than this.
The show opens, appropriately, with the rousing “Comedy Tonight,” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, something this reviewer habitually hums when reading the morning paper. (“Tragedy tomorrow. Comedy tonight.”) Act I continues with songs from West Side Story, Company, Follies, Gypsy, and the occasional worthy ditty that ended up either on the cutting room floor or otherwise forgotten or overlooked. It’s a short, anecdotal history of Sondheim’s budding mega-career.
As the first act also reminds us, Sondheim was incredibly fortunate in his choice of collaborators. They included Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers and Jule Styne, all of whom are represented here. That Sondheim should eventually equal or surpass them as a composer makes his career all the more remarkable.
The second half of the show gets more personal, focusing more on Sondheim’s moody ballads and complicated vocal monologues that redefined him as the contemporary lyric master of the American popular stage. It is not extravagant to observe that these intimate set pieces are, in their own 20th century way, as profound as the best of Schubert’s art songs. There is a depth here, an intellectual yet highly personal content that’s often missing in predictably superficial contemporary lyrics and songs. And this sets Sondheim apart from all the rest. He is the court poet of the modern relationship, particularly when it’s run aground on the shoals of misunderstanding.
The most poignant set in Act Two begins with “Losing My Mind,” an interior monologue from Follies that’s haltingly, movingly sung by Nancy Anderson. It’s followed by an equally moving performance by Matthew Scott of “Being Alive,” from Company. The set wraps with an exuberant performance of Follies’ in-your-face “I’m Still Here”s, brilliantly realized by Sherri L. Edelen. She convinces you that she herself has survived considerably more than one of life’s miserable moments while coming out on top each and every time.
Brickbats for this production? A few, although in the overall scheme of things they seem a bit churlish. This production’s set? Hardly original. A simple two-tier stage with an opening-entryway resembling a giant dressing-room makeup mirror without the mirror, against a backdrop of scattered sheet music pages pinned onto more or less invisible wires, the kind of inexpensive cliché that’s been used in any number of productions. What was scenic designer Misha Kachman thinking? Or did he lack a decent budget?
Costuming? The usual contemporary monochromatic motif, well cut but not very inventive. Perhaps costume designer Kathleen Geldard didn’t want to detract from the music or the personalities of Sondheim’s characters, in which case she surely succeeded.
Matt Rowe’s sound design? Quite as good as it gets except why do we always need microphones in an intimate space with good acoustics? On the other hand, the amplification is not overwhelming. Plus, it does guarantee you get to hear each and every word of Sondheim’s often devilishly complicated lyrics, so maybe there’s some merit to the madness here anyway.
On the plus side of the balance sheet: Accompaniment—and occasionally some of the snappy patter—was crisply and tastefully supplied by both accompanists on a pair of polished ebony baby grands that suited the limited performance space well.
The show’s direction and choreography under Matthew Gardiner was fluid and easy. This kind of studied nonchalance is the just the right approach for this kind of show, a little like the casual elegance of a Fred Astaire or Bing Crosby movie musical.
In the end, Signature’s current incarnation of Side by Side by Sondheim goes down easy. It’s like inviting your neighbors over and having a swell revue in your living room—assuming you don’t live in an efficiency. It’s a comfortable, low impact entertainment for the DC’s smart set that succeeds in briskly yet tastefully exploring the early career of a major Broadway artist who—now in his 80s—can justifiably be recognized as a living American legend.
Side by Side by Sondheim
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers, and Jule Styne.
Directed by Matthew Gardiner
Music Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: Two hours including intermission
- David Hoffman . Fairfax Times
- Leslie Milk . Washingtonian
- Susan Berlin . Talkin’ Broadway
- Brad Hathaway . Alexandria Gazette
- Barbara MacKay . Washington Examiner
- Trey Graham . Washington City Paper
- Jonathan Padget . MetroWeekly
- Missy Frederick . DCist
- Susan Davidson . CurtainUp