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BWW Review: SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM at Circa Theatre, Wellington


BWW Review: SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM at Circa Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Lindsey Rusling

This show is an absolute must particularly for fans of Stephen Sondheim!

Returning to Circa Theatre in Wellington, after the inaugural production forty years ago, 'Side by Side by Sondheim' is a musical revue featuring earlier works of the celebrated and award-winning Broadway and film composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim.

With the title derived from 'Side by Side by Side' from the musical 'Company', and originally constructed as a benefit for The Stables Theatre in Wavendon, UK, Sondheim was sceptical when asked for permission to produce it as a musical: "By all means try, but I can't think of anything more boring, except possibly the Book of Kells".

Despite Sondheim's misgivings, the 1976 production was a success and is one of the few shows to have the distinction of its entire cast being nominated for Tony Awards.

The structure of the revue reveals a number of sections tied together either through a theme such as love and marriage or being from a specific Sondheim musical. The revue covers 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum', 'Company', 'Follies', 'Anyone Can Whistle' and lesser-known works from the television musical 'Evening Primrose' and the film 'Seven Percent Solution'.
Sondheim's work as a lyricist with other composers is represented by 'West Side Story' (Leonard Bernstein), Gypsy (Jule Styne), 'Do I Hear a Waltz?' (Richard Rodgers) and 'The 'Mad Show' (Mary Rodgers).

The backstory on each of the sections is traditionally narrated by a fourth actor but in this production, the director, Emma Kinane has cleverly chosen to have the three performers take it, in turn, to communicate with the audience. This works well as we gain interesting tidbits and insight into Sondheim's songs while generating a cosier relationship between actor and audience and so entertaining that I felt myself wishing for more direct address and information throughout.

Sondheim's themes are clear. Countless songs investigate the many aspects of love and showcase his deep understanding of the innermost thoughts, desires, angst and paranoia (from hilarious to heart-breaking) of an everyman or woman and his incredible ability to convert them into a plain, but visceral truth that we can all relate to.

Portraying these complicated characters is a challenge, particularly when you add in the intricate rhythms and chord structures of the music and, the music! Under the Musical Direction of Michael Nicholas WIlliams with second pianist, Colin Taylor it is immaculate. A pianist in the audience in front of me spent the evening completely enthralled with the musicians and it was wonderful to see them being included in the fun, particularly during Julie OBrien's well-articulated 'Getting Married Today' and sexy rendition of 'I Never Do Anything Twice'.

The cast is seasoned and eminently likeable performers which makes them perfect for Sondheim where the subject matter and lyrics demand a certain maturity. The cast seemed a little tentative on opening night with the first number of 'Comedy Tonight' and somewhat lacking in the punchy energy necessary to grab the audience from the start. The first section of the show feels a little shaky in deliverance but the actors gain momentum, energy and warmth throughout the evening resulting in a fantastic medley by the end of the night.

Matthew Pike's mellifluous vocal is outstanding, each note is considered and shaped to show off his range and his beautiful rendition of 'I Remember' is a touching and lyrical highlight. At the end of "Marry Me a Little" as he sang 'I'm ready!' it was with such genuine honesty, I completely believed he meant it.

Sarah Lineham's clear tones blend delightfully with Pike's in duet, their chemistry is sincere and charming and she shows her fun side in confidently addressing the audience throughout. Lineham uses her natural aura of vulnerability in a profound rendition of 'Losing My Mind' and displays her sense of fun and instrumental ability in an energetic performance of 'You Gotta Get a Gimmick' much to the audience's delight.

Julie O'Brien is a bundle of energy with a powerful voice and wonderful comedic physicality and timing. The audience roared with laughter at her over-the-top antics, accents and rapid enunciation of the lyrics in her comedic numbers such as 'The Boy From...'. O'Brien then entranced the audience by displaying an immense range of understated emotion in a beautiful and heart-breaking interpretation of 'Send in the Clowns'.

The songs are intimate and complex with compelling harmonies and characterisation is enhanced through creative, quirky and fun choreography by the phenomenally talented Leigh Evans.

Lisa Maule's stage design is simple; an angular, raised area on either side of the stage to add levels with light panel inserts, lounge bar stools, four large, individual drop lights and long, white curtains for a backdrop which, along with the grey paintwork, help to enrich the lighting and carry the colour into the space above the actors. In the second half, the curtains are removed to display a large piece of artwork very reminiscent of the current revival of Follies at the National Theatre, London.

A few sound issues made the lyrics hard to decipher in the first half and the size and width of the stage slightly hampered the actors' connection with the audience seated on the outer edges. The audience, however, made up of a number of Wellington's musical theatre devotees, educators and performers, was enthusiastic and supportive and any technical problems were quickly attended to during intermission and the second half of the show ran smoothly.

'Side by Side by Sondheim' is a wonderful catalogue of Sondheim's early standards and his genius is in safe hands here. A thoroughly entertaining evening for anyone wishing to explore the early years of a master songwriter and an absolute must for fans.

Side By Side by Sondheim
Circa Theatre until 22nd March

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