SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM THEATER REVIEW
If you’re an aficionado of musicals who hasn’t made a voyage yet to the Odyssey Theatre to experience the siren songs of Side By Side By Sondheim - which has been extended - you still have a couple of weekends left to sail on over to Sepulveda Blvd. Sure to delight fans of plays featuring songs, this revue’s “gimmick” (as Gypsy’s strippers would put it) is that three singers and a narrator (Mark D. Kaufmann, who occasionally croons tunes, too) accompanied by pianists Cheryl Gaul and Richard Berent (also Side’s musical director, he tickles the ivories on a separate keyboard), perform numbers with music and/or lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim.
Since 1957, Sondheim has been in the front ranks of the Broadway musical, as a lyricist with his words set to music composed by Leonard Bernstein (the immortal masterpiece West Side Story) or Julie Styne (1959’s Gypsy), and as an auteur providing both the lyrics and music to shows such as 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. As this anthology of anthems debuted in 1976, it includes but does not go beyond Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, which opened that year. So, as the Narrator notes, there’s nothing from subsequent works by Sondheim, such as his ode to the Pointillist painter Seurat, 1984’s Sunday in the Park with George, or 1990’s look at America’s retinue of propagandists of the deed, Assassins (although a revival of this musical would be extremely topical right about now).
Nevertheless, with about 25 full songs there is plenty of material for Side By Side By Sondheim - which takes its name from Company’s song “Side By Side By Side” - to provide grist for the musical mill. The revue aptly opens with the three crooners singing “Comedy Tonight”, the opening number from Forum, that comedy about one of the most tragic things possible: A slave yearning to be free.
Speaking of which, a recurring theme in the work by Sondheim - the son of divorced parents and of a mother who was, reportedly, wretched to her boychik - is the misery of marriage, the ups and downs of monogamous heterosexual union. As the imaginatively named “Man 1” and “Woman 2”, Chris Kerrigan and Sarah Busic act, sing and dance this out with their droll rendition of “The Little Things You Do Together” from Company. Along with Rachel McLaughlan as “Woman 1” the trio render another song full of anxiety about wedded bliss (or not), “Getting Married Today.” Throughout the sonorous show the songbirds reveal Sondheim to be a wag and wit when it comes to words and a paragon of the show tune.
McLaughlan adds comic panache to her numbers, especially in “The Boy From”, which was featured in 1966’s The Mad Show (based on the humor magazine). However, everybody is in on the laughs in hits such as “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” from Gypsy. McLaughlan reveals a more poignant, vulnerable side in one of Sondheim’s most beloved songs, “Send in the Clowns” from 1973’s A Little Night Music. (I can remember seeing this Ingmar Bergman-inspired, Tony Award winner for Best Musical on Broadway with Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold many moons ago with my first sweetheart.) McLaughlan is also quite dramatic in her duet with Busic of “A Boy Like That” from West Side Story. In Maria’s rejoinder to Anita, “I Have a Love”, Busic is simply exquisite, as she repeatedly is throughout this two act musical romp, although she amply displays her comedic chops too, as in “Gimmick.”
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Chris Kerrigan is no stranger to musical theater, in particular to Sondheim, having performed as John Wilkes Booth (where are you now that we really need you?) in Assassins and as Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along, both of which Sondheim wrote after Side had debuted. Kerrigan proves to be an agile, versatile actor as he incarnates most of Side’s male roles (and, for good measure, some of the female parts too).
As a playwright and co-owner of the L.A. Musical Theater Studio (https://lamts.com) Mark D. Kaufmann is a canny choice to play the Narrator. Kaufmann displays a detached air of irony as he dispenses background info about the composer/lyricist in question, and from time to time warbles a tune. Like his fellow thesps, Kaufmann has a pleasant persona and presence as he holds forth. I learned a lot about Sondheim and his music from the narration and play in general, including hearing several numbers for the first time. However, I did feel a bit smug knowing that “I Never Do Anything Twice” - a risqué number humorously sung by McLaughlan - is from The Seven-Percent Solution, an excellent 1976 movie starring Nicol Williamson as a cocaine-addicted Sherlock Holmes and Alan Arkin as Sigmund Freud.
Scenic designer Alex Kolmanovsky’s set is simple. The show is choreographed by Imani G. Alexander, who also rendered the choreo for the last musical I enjoyed at the Odyssey, the equally stellar Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. However, Side is much more about the singing than the dancing, costumes (by Kim DeShazo) or sets, placing the emphasis where it squarely belongs: On Sondheim’s words and melodies.
My sole quibble with this otherwise thoroughly enjoyable, toe-tapping production is that towards the end of Act II the cast crams too many Sondheim songs by indulging in a medley or two. It’s not that I didn’t like the melodious medley, but when I hear just a lick from a classic such as, say, “America” and other celebrated hits from the peerless West Side Story, it leaves me wanting much more. It’s sort of like going to a Polynesian feast and just getting puu puus, instead of the whole luau. How often does one get to hear this rapturous music performed live?
But this is not to say that there isn’t a multitude of songs by the lad who was surely Oscar Hammerstein’s top pupil. Side offers a rapturous ride down a musical memory lane and is a must-see - and hear - for all lovers of Broadway show tunes and showstoppers, delivered with pizzazz by a quartet of talented performers. It would be sheer “folly” for fans of musicals to merely merrily roll past it.
Side By Side By Sondheim plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m., through Sept. 22 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. For more info: (323)477-2055, ext. 2; www.OdysseyTheatre.com.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book (see: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/).