Reviewed by Claudia Perry
True or False? A Musical Revue is harder to mount than a great, big Broadway book show. True. Since a revue has no continuous story to tell there is no link between the numbers and no established relationships between the characters. True or False? You can just throw a bunch of songs up on the stage and somehow they'll all work together. False. Do I like to go to see Musical Revues? False. They usually bore me. True or False? Was I able to take my eyes off any of the performers in the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio production of "Side by Side by Sondheim" for one nano-second? False! Why? Because Director Alan Souza has wisely created relationships and embedded them into the existing material. Fact: From 31 musical numbers he has managed to give us 31 shows in one short 55 minute evening. How? By treating each individual song as if it were a play unto itself. This is the way true revue material is supposed to be written -- but since these songs have all been extracted from previously existing shows, Mr. Souza had to do the work that the book writer didn't. And he's done it with dazzling results. Put that together with the fact that each song's lyrics are those of the inimitable Stephen Sondheim along with his music and the likes of composers Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne and Mary and Richard Rodgers and you've got a little gem of an evening. Mr. Souza has not only directed but meticulously choreographed the evening as well. This kind of demanding specificity is hell for the actor to learn but heaven for an audience to watch. Every moment has its pay off - every joke has its delicious landing. Add to this m_lange four talented performers and two baby grand pianos played by Mark Yurkanin and Heidi Hayes. Mr. Yurkanin also serves as Musical Director and credit must be given to him for the tasteful way in which this musical evening is presented.
"Side by Side by Sondheim" was originally conceived in 1977 (that's pre-Sweeney Todd - Sondheim's true musical masterpiece) in London by David Kernan as a musical tribute to Sondheim. One of the performers acts as a narrator who supplies us with some anecdotal material about Mr. Sondheim's early productions, but the real meat is in the numbers themselves. We get to revisit extraordinary songs from such great shows as "Follies", "Company", "A Little Night Music", "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", "West Side Story and "Gypsy". There are also selections from the less well known, "Anyone Can Whistle", "Marry Me a Little" and the musical written as a Television Special, "Evening Primrose". The scary thing is that this show premiered thirty years ago and it's still as fresh and has as much bite as when it originally opened. The truly scary thing is that there was only one song I had never heard before, ("The Boy From" from "The Mad Show".) which means that Mr. Sondheim as a Composer/Lyricist is embedded into our collective musical consciousness and has become a part of the lexicon. (It's not only me who can quote from "It's the Little Things You Do Together" but also my sister who's an architect.)
Denise Whelan possesses a versatile vocal instrument and uses her powerful Mezzo Soprano voice to give a tour de force performance as Woman 1. She is by turns extremely funny, bawdy, prissy and vulnerable. Each song makes different demands of her vocal and actorial skills and she switches hats with ease. She knocks us out with "I'm Still Here", (Follies) breaks our heart with "Anyone Can Whistle" (title song from the show of the same name) is hysterically manic with "Getting Married Today" (Company) and kills with her timing on "I Never Do Anything Twice" (from the film "The Seven Percent Solution"). Ben Dibble excels vocally with his clear tenor voice and is a joy to watch as an actor- his face registering every fleeting thought and emotion. He endears us with , "You Must Meet My Wife" (A Little Night Music), bowls us over with his bitchiness in "Could I Leave You? (Follies) and garners big laughs with "Buddy's Blues" (Follies) and "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" (Gypsy). When ingenue Kim Carson sings in her true soprano register she simply soars, as in "I Have a Love" (West Side Story). There is a crystal clarity to her voice that is both pretty and serene. And the great trick is that she makes it appear to be completely effortless. Her presence onstage is much more relaxed, (one could say even lethargic at times) and yet it is in good contrast to the dramatic thrashings of the other two performers. However, she does get to show off her comic skill in "Barcelona" and the adorable "The Boy From" (The Mad Show). The fourth performer, Fran Prisco serves mostly as The Narrator where his macho, debonair presence and sarcastic ad libs seem to be appreciated by the ladies in the audience. He has only two solos and chimes in when a fourth voice is needed where his deeper timbred voice is a nice addition to the company.
The pastel colored costumes by Mary Folino were elegant with simple touches to help the actors quickly change into different characters (such as shawls for Anita and Maria for the duet from "West Side Story", a veil for the bride in "Getting Married Today"). The set and stage dressing by Andrew Thompson was sharp and classy. Black platforms lead to the main floor where two shiny, black, Baby Grand pianos sit in a triangular configuration covered with sparkling crystal glasses, decanters and a vase of white flowers. These elements all work perfectly with Mr. Souza's overall vision of the evening which is sleek, sophisticated, devilishly sly, funny and poignant - like the work of Mr. Sondheim.
So what do you do with a little gem of a show like this? Well, for one thing - do yourself a favor, buy tickets, go to see it and watch it glitter. True or False? Do I hope in the future to see Mr. Souza direct a great, big, fat musical on the Main Stage perhaps (or anywhere else for that matter)? True, true, true!