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May 11, 2011

Signature Theatre delivers first-rate revival of 'Side by Side by Sondheim'

If Stephen Sondheim isn't God, he's at least among the alternate definitions of "omnipotent."

In terms of individuality, creativity, erudition and insight, no one else in the music theater world can touch him. It's that simple.

And it explains why an entire show could be built around the man, the words, the music  -- and why said show, "Side by Side by Sondheim," is so enduring. This combination cabaret and homage (maybe veneration says it better) has been around since 1976, when it debuted in London; fans tend to treat the piece almost as reverentially as a full-fledged Sondheim musical.

Signature Theatre, which established itself some time ago as a major Sondheim shrine, brings the curtain down on its 2010-11 season with a thoroughly winning production of "Side by Side" that runs through June 12. (Perhaps the company will help develop a sequel someday soon -- Sondheim has written an awfully lot of great material since the 1970s, so "Son of Side by Side by Sondheim" is just begging to be created.)

Constructed in two acts, the show breezes through nearly three dozen songs, revealing various angles of Sondheim's artistic development, from his early lyricist days collaborating with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers and Jule Styne, to his first all-Sondheim masterworks. Periodic bursts of narration serve up biographical material and backstage anecdotes along the way.

It would be easy for all of this to turn stuffy and puffy, but "Side by Side" manages to avoid the trap. And the Signature staging manages to make just about every verse, melody and harmonic turn sound remarkably fresh. Even if you know the rhyme and reason of all the songs, you're likely to feel a fresh tingle.

The three exceedingly engaging singers in this cast have been put through their paces in imaginative, fluid fashion by director/choreographer Matthew Gardiner, who capitalizes on each performer's strengths. The production -- designed by Misha Kachman, lit by Colin K. Bills, subtly costumed by Kathleen Geldard -- looks and fels both polished and spontaneous.

Sherri L. Edelen brings consistently warm, colorful singing to the show. She also demonstrates ...

a particularly striking way of getting beneath a lyric; she nails the anthem "I'm Still Here" not so much with vocal cords as with a palpable connection to each phrase. Edelen can be very funny, too, extracting the sexy (and campy) value of "I Never Do Anything Twice" and, with Nancy Anderson, the naughty duet "Can That Boy Foxtrot!"

Anderson reveals delicious comic timing herself in the breathless "Getting Married Today" and, especially, the "A Boy From." The latter is the brilliant (and campy) send-up of "The Girl from Impanema" Sondheim penned to a tune by Mary Rodgers. Hearing Anderson, in her best Castilian, sing the hometown of her would-be boyfriend, "La Tumbe del Fuego Santa Malipas Zacatecas la Junta del Sol y Cruz," puts you in genuine LOL territory.

On the serious side, Anderson does some powerful work, nowhere more so than in "Losing My Mind," which she sculpts with masterful nuance. Vocally, she's not always as sturdy and persuasive when she moves into operatic soprano voice, as in a duet from "West Side Story" with Edelen, but that's a minor matter in light of her invariably insightful phrasing.

Matthew Scott delivers the show's most affecting highs -- at pianissimo levels. In "Something's Coming," he offers wonderfully soft dynamic shading to reveal the rich deep-set longing that fuels the song. Scott phrases two of Sondheim's most sublime ballads, "I Remember" and "Anyone Can Whistle," with disarming tenderness of tone and sensitivity of phrase.

Scott is no less successful at full-throttle, hamming it up in "You Gotta Have a Gimmick," for example. And he works beautifully with Anderson to create a vivid scene out of the wry "Barcelona" number from "Company."

At one piano, music director Jon Kalbfleisch does stylish playing and the lion's share of the narrating; at the second piano, Gabriel Mangiante provides equally refined work and gets in a few words as well.

But both men -- and the singers -- deserve better keyboard instruments. Tinny baby grands just don't cut it for such a rich show.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:31 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens


A little side note: This show was created in England by veterans of the satirical comedy show, That Was the Week That Was. When they sought Sondheim's permission to mount the review, he told them (by telegram!) "Go ahead. But personally I can't think of anything more boring, except the Book of Kells."

What a droll man, that Sondheim. Thanks for that anecdote. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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