In his program note for the Vagabond's production of the musical revue, "Side by Side by Sondheim," director Rod Clark suggests that the audience treat the experience as if they were guests in his home, enjoying a little after-dinner entertainment.
A few conclusions can be drawn from this. First, considering the stylish art deco set, Clark must live in an elegant home. Furthermore, judging from the array of elaborate outfits worn by the two women in the cast, he must give extremely formal dinner parties. And, based on the static posing that occasionally crops up, his guests must be a fairly stiff and formal lot.
But before being labeled a curmudgeon, I admit these are largely peripheral concerns worth overlooking if the material and performers are strong enough. In this case, there's no question about the former, and the latter is more than adequate to make this an enjoyable evening.
Originally presented in England in 1975, "Side by Side" is an anthology of songs great and small for which Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and/or lyrics. They range from the famous ("Send in the Clowns," from "A Little Night Music") to the obscure ("I Remember," written for a 1967 made-for-TV musical called "Evening Primose," which was described by one critic as "a flower that withered before it could bloom").
The Vagabond's version, which has musical direction by K.J. Davis, incorporates a number of changes -- rearranging the order of the songs and adding a few new ones from the more recent Sondheim musicals, "Sweeney Todd" and "Into the Woods." The production also uses a quartet of singers instead of the original arrangement of a trio and narrator.
These changes work smoothly, however, particularly the addition "Agony," the comic lament of the dual Prince Charmings in "Into the Woods," performed with comic woefulness by the male members of the cast, Gary Hiel and Mike Marshall.
The strongest voice is that of Harriette Bush Clark, who not only makes simple work of Sondheim's complex compositions but brings a genuine sense of character to such numbers as the gritty, "I'm Still Here," from "Follies," and "I Never Do Anything Twice," the madam's song from the movie "The Seven Percent Solution."
Sondheim fans are bound to have favorite songs, and I've always been partial to "Losing My Mind," from "Follies," an opinion reinforced by Ava Lenet's stirring rendition. Lenet (whose role will be sung by Nadine Haas-Wellington this weekend) has a tendency to appear distracted in some of the less taxing numbers, but fortunately her distraction fits the context of this poignant, difficult song.
According to Craig Zadan's book, "Sondheim & Co.," when the composer was first approached about the possibility of doing a revue of his songs, he gave his approval but warned that the result was bound to be boring.
"Side by Side" not only demonstrates how wrong he was, it's spawned a sequel; "Putting It Together," an all-new anthology, is scheduled to make its American debut off-Broadway in March starring Julie Andrews.
'Side by Side by Sondheim'
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Through Dec. 13.
Where: Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway.
Call: (410) 563-9135.