By Philip Pearce
When the golden pioneer years of the likes of Berlin, Kern, Porter and Rodgers had passed, Stephen Sondheim was one of a number of new composers and lyricists to emerge as major Broadway talents. He couldn’t have been more different from the others. Unlike fans of Lloyd-Webber or Lerner and Lowe, you don’t leave a Sondheim show humming Sondheim tunes. You’re challenged by complex melodies you’ve just heard sung by often conflicted, even psychotic, stage characters. The words and music demand reflection and repeated listening. The new revue at The Western Stage provides an enchanting opportunity to recall music from hits like Company and A Little Night Music and to encounter other numbers that never saw an opening on Broadway, let alone in Salinas, till Side by Side by Sondheim came long.
It began way back in the 1970s as a British provincial theater benefit show, moved to London’s West End and then on to Broadway, collecting big audiences, rave reviews, theater awards and revivals along the way. The original script calls for three singers, one of whom also serves as an MC to introduce and comment on the songs, all with lyrics by Sondheim, most but not all with his music. TWS expands the original trio into three male and four female singer/actors, with Chris Graham singing as well as narrating, occasionally spelled in the latter function by other members of this gifted ensemble. Three of the group, along with Graham, have impressive track records in local theatre. There’s feisty and fast-moving Reina Cruz Vasquez, who becomes increasingly desperate in her efforts to clear the church and back out of marriage on her wedding day in “Getting Married Today.” Pat Horsley can be brisk, raunchy and hilarious as one of a trio of strippers in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” (hers is a trumpet) and then subtly break your heart in the show’s final solo “I’m Still Here.” In “Broadway Baby” Susanne Burns offers the portrait of a hopeful New York dame who’s never made it on the Gay White Way and never will however hard she tries, and she also pairs up nicely with the urbane Otis Goodwin Jr. for “The Little Things You Do Together,” all sugar on the surface, all acid at the core.
Two young and wonderful newcomers complete the company. Pretty and witty and bright, Aimee Puentes can sing like an angel in A Little Night Music’s “Bring in the Clowns,” or belt out a raucous duet with Vasquez about the blessings they’d enjoy “If Momma Was Married” from Gypsy, words by Sondheim, music by Jule Styne. Finally, there’s Darek Riley, who offers a strong tenor to “Buddy’s Blues” from Follies, along with the eager bespectacled look of a 1920s comedian like Harold Lloyd, and then bulges out into a muscle man for “Can That Boy Foxtrot.”
Some important post-1970s works like Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods are inevitably missing. And a fair share of what you do hear are either pieces you’re glad to be reminded of or, in a few cases, numbers like “Marry Me a Little” and “Love is in the Air” that were cut during their original tryouts, not because they aren’t terrific material, but because they didn’t fit a character or a theme. Side by Side by Sondheim owes much of its brio and cutting edge to its creators’ refusal to turn it into just a nice evening of familiar favorites.
And what a quick-paced and funny next-to-final number is “Conversation Piece,” stitched together from short sections of songs we’ve heard earlier in the show or sometimes not till now. I particularly liked the moment when Graham twittered unexpectedly into “I Feel Pretty” (from West Side Story, of course) and was countered by Vasquez and Puentes in a wry reprise of “A Boy Like That” with its stern warning, “Stick to your own kind.”
It works wonderfully, thanks to the all singing, all dancing principals, Jon Selover’s imaginative staging and Joe Niesen’s choreography, plus nice two-piano work from Stephen Tosh and Rebecca Nelson with musical director Don Dally on the violin.
(Side by Side by Sondheim continues Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm through July 27.)