Revered songwriter Stephen Sondheim is currently being feted on Broadway by the likes of Vanessa Williams, Barbara Cook and Tom Wopat in Sondheim on Sondheim. Meanwhile, a modest but festive celebration in honor of his 80th birthday is unfolding in Madison at the Bartell Theatre.
Side by Side by Sondheim, which opened Friday night, is presented by Four Seasons Theatre in cooperation with Madison Theatre Guild. This musical revue was conceived as a theater benefit when it premiered in London in the mid 1970s. The show groups, by theme, songs from his earlier works, and between the groupings the cast shares tidbits about Sondheim's life, the original productions and the songs themselves.
Director/performer Wendy Jones Hill capably handles what's probably the most famous song in the revue, "Send in the Clowns." She has assembled a talented ensemble and cast them well, assigning them songs that really suit them. There are a lot of songs! This means everyone watching can have a standout moment, and even if you don't like a song (for me, that was "Too Many Mornings") or a particular performance, another one will be coming along shortly that will probably appeal to you.
Showcasing Sondheim's clever, tongue-twisting wordsmithery, feisty Meghan Randolph does her best work as a bride frantic to avoid tying the knot in "Not Getting Married Today" from Company, while Christine Callsen is charming as she masters the rush of words about her crush in The Mad Show's "The Boy From..."
In a spare and melancholy number, excellent Doug Swenson lets the audience take in Sondheim's eloquent metaphors from "I Remember" (from the short-lived TV show Evening Primrose). In Follies' "Losing My Mind," Tamara Norden Brognano really makes the song her own -- quietly at first, as she reveals how thoughts of her lost love permeate her daily routine, then building to a wrenching crescendo.
As the narration points out, so many of Sondheim's songs have to do with relationships. Many aspects of relationships are explored here: one-night stands, the hope of new love, weddings, the demise of a marriage and plans for divorce. Some songs feature a healthy shot of double entendre. Two of my favorite relationship songs are the smart and sassy "The Little Things You Do Together" from Company, in which elegant Marja Barger and Swenson perform with real chemistry; and "You Must Meet My Wife," from A Little Night Music, in which Jerry Orbach look-alike Rick Henslin regales his former mistress (Jones Hill) with stories of his young (and frigid) new bride.
Leslie Cao, with her enviable gams and sleek hair, is a standout throughout the evening, exhibiting her vocal and acting range. She convincingly plays the hopeful, young ingénue in "Broadway Baby" and "Another Hundred People," but then is steely as Anita from West Side Story with "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love."
Fun is had with a cute "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" from Company and a raucous, gender-bending "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" from Gypsy.
You really see the scope and artistry of Sondheim's work in these songs. For those who've long admired his work, the evening is a pleasant stroll down memory lane. I imagine that audience members who aren't as familiar will come away fans -- a successful outcome for the production and a suitable birthday gift to Sondheim.