For Gazette theater writer Bill Buell's preview of this show, click here.
Quoting Stephen Sondheim’s opening lyrics to “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” there is “something familiar, something peculiar” on the stage at the Schenectady Light Opera Co.’s production of the musical revue “Side by Side by Sondheim,” being presented through March 14.
Originally conceived in 1975 by jazz vocalist Cleo Laine and husband/musician John Dankworth for their London theater, “Side by Side by Sondheim” was the first in a series of compilation revues of the composer’s canon. Cobbling together pieces from the composer’s work up to 1976, the show highlights Sondheim’s early shows as a composer and lyricist (“Anyone Can Whistle,” “Follies,” “Company”) and includes the music of Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne and Richard Rodgers when Sondheim was just writing the words. Created to be a showcase of Sondheim’s craft for those who were unfamiliar, the tiny revue is a pleasant journey down memory lane with some fine music and clever lyrics, with the added amusement of a narrator to guide you through the evening.
On the “familiar” side of the above equation, SLOC has once again gathered some fine talent and strong voices to celebrate and fete Sondheim. SLOC veteran Pat Brady pulls double duty as the wry hostess dropping trivia about the composer while jumping in every now and again to lend her vocal styling with the rest of the cast. Corie Rowe connects the dots with “Another Hundred People,” and Christine Verderese has success with the double-entendre delight “I Never Do Anything Twice.”
Relegated to the back row for most of act one, Joan Horgan takes center stage after the intermission, finding the emotional core to “Losing My Mind” and receiving sustained and well-deserved applause. Ryan Glynn and Michael Aniolek bring a pleasant sound to the plaintive “Anyone Can Whistle” in a novel twist on a Sondheim staple, and hostess Brady comes back to offer a poignant and controlled “Send in the Clowns ” at the top of act two.
Now, for the peculiar. Usually performed with a cast of three or four, director Thomas Dalton Bambury has oddly found it necessary to quadruple the standard cast size for this show. While this does give more talent a chance to shine, it more often than not leaves most of the cast with nothing to do. With evening fare that is as intimate and delicate as this, a light touch is necessary. But Bambury has taken what might be described as a “hands-off” approach to the material, so much so that performers are without resolve or intent. Singers come on and off stage without purpose other than to sing a song. While that may sound quite fine and functional, coming onstage to sing a song and tell a story would be the better choice. Rarely connecting with the composer’s lyrics, this leaves the evening bereft of much emotional impact and is ultimately unsatisfying.
Instead of focusing on the purpose of the evening, music and lyrics, we are subjected to pointless set changes, well executed, artful but extraneous dancing, numerous unneeded costume changes, distracting and puzzling projections (usually unviewable due to performers being in the way) and lifeless musical staging. Thankfully, there are some moments of inspiration — “The Boy From,” the composer’s clever parody of the 1960s “The Girl From Ipenema,” is given a humorous turn and a weary wink with Corie Rowe and Christine Verderese. “Can That Boy Foxtrot,” a cut song from “Follies,” is neatly molded into a female quartet that offers a sharp prospective on the lyrics. Czelusiniak and Lynzee Finny nicely demonstrate their dancing abilities, but their efforts are not molded into the production in any meaningful way.
Doug Peek and Mary Kozlowski’s setting for the production, very fine, lush and well executed, creates ample room for an extravaganza — chandelier included — but it simply overwhelms the material, creating yet another distraction (albeit an extremely pretty one) from the purpose of the evening — music and lyrics.
Unfortunately for the audience, this production is a mish-mash of a mess running the gamut from A to B of cleverness and style. To quote the man of the evening, “c’est la vie.”