Review: ‘Side by Side by Sondheim’
Something erratic on stage at JET
Something familiar, yet something peculiar hit the stage of the Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company this past Saturday night.
What was familiar was the show, “Side by Side by Sondheim,” a musical revue that celebrates the work of Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
What was peculiar, however, was the production itself. For what was promised in the show’s energetic opening number – “Comedy Tonight” from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” – was only partially delivered.
Sure, there were many things appealing about JET’s production, but so, too, were there several things appalling. And the tragedy promised for tomorrow night? It came on opening night, instead.
“Side by Side,” originally conceived in 1975 as a fundraiser by singer Cleo Laine and her husband, is an intimate production that reveals why Sondheim is one of the most revered and influential masters of the American theater. The program walks theatergoers through the first half of the artist’s amazing career, from “West Side Story” in 1957 through “Pacific Overtures” in 1976. For fans of his work, it’s a memorable return to some of the most beloved musicals of the mid-twentieth century; for the uninitiated, it’s an entertaining introduction to Sondheim’s sophistication and wit.
Theater executives find the show’s concept appealing: Its small cast – usually three or four singers, plus a narrator – simple set and minimal costumes and props make this a fairly inexpensive show to produce. And it attracts that rather large segment of the ticket-buying public that demands musical entertainment.
So it came as no surprise that JET chose to stage “Side by Side” as its third-ever musical production. And its pedigree – a cast that includes the always astounding Naz Edwards and pixyish Shannon Nicole Locke who knocked every critic’s socks off last season in the BoarsHead’s production – made it a much-anticipated holiday treat.
But alas, that was not meant to be – despite several excellent moments scattered throughout the evening.
Edwards and Locke, especially together, provided most of the night’s highpoints, starting with “If Mama was Married” from “Gypsy” and ending with “A Boy Like That” from “West Side Story.” (“Can That Boy Fox Trot” was also an audience pleaser.)
Locke also worked well with Brian Thibault, especially in “The Little Things You Do Together” and “Barcelona.”
But it was Edwards who dominated the stage, first with Peter Kevoian in “You Must Meet My Wife” and, later, with her solos “I Never Do Anything Twice,” “Send in the Clowns,” “The Boy From” and “I’m Still Here.”
So what went wrong, you might be wondering?
For starters, the set design. Placing the two pianists on opposite sides of the stage proved hurtful at numerous points throughout the show. Why? The musicians apparently couldn’t hear each other, since they were often out of synch with each other – and with the performers, as well. It was a train wreck that should have been averted before the first performance ever hit the stage.
A note in the biography of director Harold Jurkiewicz also provides insight into the show’s problems. Despite its simplistic appearance, Sondheim’s complicated music is difficult to master. Add choreography to the mix and the need to develop unique personalities (and “bits”) for the many and varied characters who sweep across the stage, one might be surprised that only three weeks were allotted to rehearse the revue. Sadly, the lack of preparation shows, as much of the humor and subtleties that can be mined from the songs are missing, replaced instead by performers who sometimes seem ill-at-ease with the material.
But the most egregious fault on opening night, quite frankly, was the narration. Director Evelyn Orbach would, I suspect, come down hard on any actor who came ill-prepared for a performance, but that’s just what actor/narrator Orbach did last Saturday night. (And her hesitant delivery seemed to cause confusion in the light booth, as well, which didn’t help matters any.)
“Side by Side by Sondheim” runs Wed., Thu., Sat. & Sun., through Jan. 8 by Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at the DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple, West Bloomfield. Tickets: $27-$37. For information: 248-788-2900 or http://www.jettheatre.org.
The Bottom Line: So what is the moral of the story? Never stage a musical unless you’re willing to throw the appropriate resources at it!
OPINION: Confessions of a Cranky Critic
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and let’s ‘dish the dirt’
With this, the last edition of Curtain Calls and Between The Lines for 2005, John Quinn and I would like to wish our readers a happy, merry and safe holiday season. And for the theater community, we wish a 2006 filled with box office cheer!
What, may I ask, are you planning to do for fun this holiday season? Let me make a few recommendations.
For starters, Planet Ant is the only theater company brave enough to open a new production during the week between Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa and New Year’s Day. So if you’re looking for something to brighten your holidays, check out “The Bannisters’ Wholesome Family Fun Hour” that begins previews on Christmas Day. (But be forewarned: It’s suggested for mature audiences only!)
Then there’s “No Way to Treat a Lady,” the noir musical co-produced by Lansing’s BoarsHead Theater and Meadow Brook Theatre that begins previews at MBT Jan. 4.
Finally, Performance Network Theatre is starting 2006 with Gillian Eaton’s one-woman masterpiece, “Mrs. Shakespeare Dishes the Dirt.” Updated and revised since its much-praised premiere last year at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill, “Mrs. Shakespeare” tells The Bard’s story – warts and all – but through the jaundiced eyes of his wife, Ann. It’s a fascinating and engaging presentation that should be viewed by every high school English class, college lit major and theater lover – even if Shakespeare isn’t your “thing.” Why? Because it’s a funny and irreverent program that promises to both entertain and teach – and with the award-winning Gillian Eaton on stage, how can you go wrong? The show opens Jan. 5 for a two-week run.
See this week’s Theater Events for complete details.