Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2006

I have to say that I was disappointed to learn last month that I would not be seeing A New Brain, the show long-advertised for this slot in the Ghent season. Alas, auditions didn’t turn up enough people to produce the show properly, a problem not uncommon to community theatre, particularly in the depths of winter with gas prices rising. And while I understood why Side by Side by Sondheim was a sensible small-cast replacement, it is a show that has been around (and around and around and around) for a while. Since 1976 to be exact. Did I, or anyone else, really want or need to see it again?

The answer is yes, and that may surprise those of you all too familiar with my dislike of musical revues masquerading as legitimate theatre to start with. But this production has two things going for it:
1) the wonderful music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim
2) a cast the works HARD to live up to the standard set by the material

Now I like Sondheim’s music, but I know it is not to everyone’s taste. If you like Sondheim you will like this show. If you like Richard Rodgers and Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne, all of whose music Sondheim provided lyrics for early in his career, there is plenty of their talent on display as well. If you prefer Andrew Lloyd Webber, stay home.

Side by Side by Sondheim celebrates the composer’s career from its beginnings up through 1976, when this revue made its debut in London. Sondheim?s 1976 opus was Pacific Overtures, from which two songs are featured. Of the 27 songs in the show seven each come from Company (1970) and Follies (1971), with only two songs from my favorite Sondheim show from that period A Little Night Music, one of which is, of course, Send in the Clowns. Sondheim?s early and successful collaborations as lyricist to Jule Styne (Gypsy 1959), Bernstein (West Side Story 1957), and Rodgers (Do I Hear a Waltz? 1965) are represented, as well as some little know solo work for the TV special Evening Primrose (1966), the film The Seven Percent Solution (1976), and a delightful collaboration with Mary Rodgers Guettel (daughter of Richard and mother of Adam) on a number for the 1966 comedy revue The Mad ShowComedy Tonight from Sondheim’s early solo success A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) opens the first act, and a pair of songs from his early failure Anyone Can Whistle (1964), open the second.

In between the numbers, a narrator comes out and tells you a great deal of what I just crammed into that last paragraph. Luckily, the narrator in this case is the delightful Judy Staber, who adds dignity and wit to what is otherwise a tiresome device to give the three singer/actors a chance to hydrate and change costumes.

Sondheim’s music isn’t easy, and an entire evening of his greatest (early) hits, performed non-stop and out of context, is a real challenge. Side by Side by Sondheim was originally presented with only three singer/actors, and, although I have seen amateur groups present it with larger casts, Ghent sticks to the original model. Ghent stalwarts Tom Detwiler (currently the Playhouse’s Artistic Director), Cathy Lee Visscher (a founding member of the Playhouse) and Johnna Murray (a current Playhouse board member) do heroic work with the material, often presenting numbers for which they normally would be considered too old, too young, too Anglo-Saxon, or the wrong gender. That they succeed most of the time is greatly to their credit, and to the credit of director Meg Dooley, musical director and accompanist Paul Leyden, and choreographer Abby Lappen.

I understand that this team devoted all of their “free time” over the past six weeks to putting this show together. The opening night performance I saw had its rocky moments, but as the evening progressed the performers hit their stride and things improved.

Murray is one of my favorite Ghent performers. She falls into that category of actresses who can look absolutely beautiful or completely ridiculous and do both well. Here she gets to do both, scoring hits as the frenzied bride Amy in Getting Married Today, a Viennese madam in I Never Do Anything Twice, the aging actress Desiree Armfeldt in Send in the Clowns, and as the ultimate show-biz survivor in I’m Still Here.

Visscher has a lovely soprano and is a versatile performer. I was surprised how much I enjoyed her breathlessly innocent rendition of Broadway Baby, a song usually sung by a much older woman in a very different style. She paired nicely with Detwiler on The Little Things You Do Together and was delightfully ditzy in the The Boy From…, a song which manages to use the word Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (it’s the name of a town in Wales). No mean feat!

Detwiler didn’t seem completely comfortable in some of his numbers. He was stronger in the ensemble pieces than in his solos. I did enjoy his bitchy gay rendition of Could I Leave You?, a song written to be sung by a woman, and his razzle-dazzle turn on Buddy’s Blues.

The show stopping number comes in the second act when Murray, Vischer and Detwiler deck themselves out as over-the-hill strippers and belt out You Gottta Get a Gimmick from Gypsy. Murray is the trumpet tooting Mezappa, Visscher is the flashy Electra, and Detwiler is the refined and dignified Tessie Tura. They are all very, very funny.

Leyden does yeoman’s duty, playing tricky tunes by Sondheim and Bernstein with panache. He doesn’t get to go offstage and collapse while Staber does her narration.

Lappen has provided a lot of simple but effective choreography. These are not professional dancers and the load they carry is heavy enough without inflicting on them a lot of complicated and tiring dance steps. The focus here is on the words and the music, and Lappen wisely allows the movement to enhance, rather than upstage.

Bill Camp has designed a handsome bright blue set consisting of several archways concluding with a gold lame curtain that give the stage depth and provide lots of nooks and crannies for Dooley and Lappen to move the action through.

There were some glitches and hitches in Ian Gulliver’s lighting design on opening night, issues that will probably be fixed by the time you see the show. Joanne Maurer has done her usual professional job with the costumes, providing humorous and effective bits that pop quickly over the basics to change character and mood from song to song. She also made sure that Murray, Visscher, Staber, and Detwiler each looked their very best when they were alone in the spotlight.

Ghent has worked hard and pulled a sizeable rabbit out of its hat to cover for the loss of A New Brain. Even if you have seen Side by Side by Sondheim a million times before, it is worth going again to cheer these talented performers on and to support the ongoing mission of the Playhouse.

Side By Side By Sondheim runs weekends through April 9, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission and is suitable for children 8 and up. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

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