About three decades ago, theater enthusiasts in London pulled together a collection of songs by Stephen Sondheim, skimming numbers from shows he’d created during the previous 20 years. Side by Side by Sondheim was an unassuming revue, a narrator and a couple of singers, but it became a hit in London, eventually running for more than 800 performances.
Then it moved to New York City, where it opened in April 1977, earned a handful of Tony Award nominations, entertained audiences for 384 performances and established itself as the definitive vehicle to give audiences an evening of music by the theater’s most admired composer and lyricist.
Side by Side will certainly see more productions in the present economic climate because it can be done with a small cast and a minimal set. It used two men and two women in its original incarnation. The licensing agency allows it to be performed by a cast of two to 10, and the song list has flexibility.
For his Commonwealth Theatre Company production at Northern Kentucky University, director Mark Hardy has used three women and one man, plus a single piano for accompaniment. Hardy has dispensed with the narrator and attempted to shape the work with several stories supported by songs drawn from eight Sondheim shows. While several songs are delivered with style and talent, the construct feels forced and inconsistent.
The set appears to be a sleek urban bar, although more often than not the actors are sitting at one of four widely scattered tables scrutinizing laptops or talking on cell phones (which are used too frequently), the kind of activity you’d expect in a coffee shop.
They have come in to escape a downpour (thunder sounds throughout the show), although a man (Justin Glaser) and a woman (Lisa Erikcsen) seem to have arranged an illicit assignation. A young woman on the verge of marriage (Samantha B. Northart) wanders in and expresses her profound anxiety. The bartender/barista (Jennifer Myers-Scott), more of a party girl until some profound moments in Act II, tries to cheer up the bride-to-be. A pianist (Erik Baumgartner) is there for entertainment and accompaniment.
Hardy’s narrative overlay has Glaser and Ericksen struggling with their on-again, off-again affair using songs like “You Must Meet My Wife,” “Every Day a Little Death” and “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, “Barcelona” from Company and “Too Many Mornings” from Follies. But the storytelling gets blurry when Northart and Glaser pair up for “Lovely” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Northart sings “What More Do I Need?” to Glaser. At another point, the three women combine for Gypsy’s stripper number, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” which doesn’t make much sense at all.
Northart’s songs focus on her anxiety about marriage and life (“Getting Married Today” and “Marry Me a Little” from Company). In Act II, Myers-Scott sings two powerful numbers, “There Won’t Be Trumpets” from Anyone Can Whistle and “Losing My Mind” from Follies, which seem to indicate a previously unreferenced love life.
Musical performances are generally strong, although Northart’s softer voice isn't well suited to several of her frenetic numbers. Myers-Scott is a vocal powerhouse with great volume and diction, but both Ericksen and Glaser have excellent moments (she in “Clowns,” he in “Being Alive”).
Unfortunately, this production of Side by Side sets up expectations of storytelling that aren’t fulfilled. I would have preferred to listen to the music rather than trying to put threads together that never quite connected.
SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM, presented by the Commonwealth Theatre Company at Northern Kentucky University, continues through June 28. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.