Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Best of Sondheim, end to end

Cleveland Press December 8, 1979

I've seen "Side By Side By Sondheim" twice before, but never in a livelier staging than it received last night at the Play House Euclid-77th Theater.

It's a good show to begin with, almost foolproof. The added touch that imaginative staging gives it makes it excellent.

"Side By Side" is a musical revue using music and lyrics, though more lyrics than music, by Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim is the best Iyricist in the musical comedy theater today and the most innovative composer. His name, while hardly a household word, is probably better known than his music. He was a Iyricist for Jule Styne ("Gypsy"), Leonard Bernstein ("West Side Story") and Richard Rodgers ("Do I Hear a Waltz?")

As composer-lyricist his shows include "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "A Little Night Music," "Follies," "Company," "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Pacific Overtures," all of which are represented in the revue. His latest work, "Sweeney Toddy," was done after this revue was conceived. In the current production it is represented by a single selection done instrumentally.

His music remains fundamentally an integral part of his shows. Only one Sondheim composition, "Send In the Clowns," has become a popular hit.

"Side By Side" packages the best of the Sondheim tunes plus some great and familiar music by others for which he wrote the lyrics. The result is a Sondheim sampler, a bundle of words and music that is both dazzling and thoughtful,

Catherine Cox, Peter Shawn and Laura Waterbury handle most of the songs, with June Gibbons contributing a few but mostly providing a narration that comments on the selections and places them in context, doing so with considerable wit.

"Comedy Tonight" from "Forum" is both overture and framework for the show. While the emphasis is on comedy, some of it is on the bitter side, especially in the matter of the relations of the sexes.

Music from "Company" and "Follies" are examples of humor both wry and bleak.

The songs are delivered by some good musical comedy singers, especially Catherine Cox and Laura Waterbury.

The show is done with a set rather than the bare stage usual for this sort of thing. It has the looks of a Manhattan apartment (skyline through the window) done in art deco -- all blue and stainless steel.

Director Judith Haskell uses the set, uses her players so that many of the numbers approach full, self-contained musical comedy bits. June Gibbons delivers her remarks as though she were casually commenting with some sudden thoughts. While part of her narration is descriptive, some of it is in the form of comic comment -- the Andrews Sisters are described as "imagine a trio and they're all Bette Midler." The song, "You Must Meet My Wife," is not what Trudeau said to the Rolling Stones.

Accompaniment is provided by musical director David Gooding at one piano, Marge Adler at the other and it is all that is needed.

It may be that Sondheim is an acquired taste. "Side By Side" is a good way to start acquiring it and have a good time. For the composer's loyal fans, the show is one of the few ways they have to hear his music performed -- few of his shows travel beyond Broadway.