Side By Side By SondheimPhoto – Kurt Sneddon

With songs like these, you can't go too far wrong. Side By Side By Sondheim premiered, in London, in 1976. Four years later, it closed. It wasn't too much different on Broadway, where it ran for 390 performances. Bearing in mind it isn't a full-blown musical, but a revue. In fact, though the revue has roots reaching back about a century earlier, it cultivated something of a public penchant for revues which seems to have persisted. In any case, it's one of Sondheim's most-performed shows.

Happily for us, Side (as I'll hereinafter refer to it) hit our shores pretty much as soon as it hit Broadway. It was 1977, and it starred Jill Perryman, Bartholomew John, Geraldene Morrow and Lawsy. Side-by-side for this production are Amelia Cormack, Margi De Ferranti and Enda Markey (who's show it is), with Jessica Rowe as Lawsy (well, the narrator). And we shouldn't forget the duelling pianos of Craig Renshaw and Lindsay Partridge, who also served as musical and assistant musical directors. I don't know whether the arrangements are theirs, but they're wonderful.

Jess does her likeable best, but her comic timing and singing voice leave something to be desired. The narration itself brings some interesting biographical detail to light, so is worth it from that point-of-view, if no other. We learn, for example, that when little Stevie's parents divorced, he lived with his mother, just a couple of doors down from Oscar Hammerstein II, who proved, unsurprisingly, to be one of Sondheim's most valuable mentors.

The lyrics are all Sondheim's, but the music is also Bernstein's, Richard Rodgers', Mary Rodgers' and Julie Styne's.

Each of the three key performers has shining moments and they complement each other very well, harmonically and theatrically. Markey has a smooth, even vocal delivery, attractive raspy timbre, a big smile and can really put the pedal to the metal when a note cries out for it. So can the other two, of course. De Ferranti shows there's no substitute for experience: she has all the comic and dramatic touches. Her biggest, featured moment, at least on paper, would have to be her pensive Send In The Clowns but, whether for effect or not, she sounded just off-key to mine ears; astonishing but, I think, true. Nonetheless, it was a good reading, if by no means a definitive one. This reality tended to point to a slightly under-rehearsed production, but the flaws were minor and nothing that couldn't be spruced-up for the next outing. There were a couple of moments, too, when lyrics seemed to fail them, but they got away with it.

De Ferranti is almost certainly the most self-assured of the three. And why shouldn't she be, given her pedigree? Markey is more singer than dancer, or actor, though he has strong interactions with his co-stars at times. For mine, however, the younger Cormack shows herself to have nuance and experience, in almost all departments, which betray her relative inexperience. I say relative, because she has plenty, but next to de Ferranti, in particular, is a comparative babe in the woods. She has a clear, clean, open voice, which shouldn't be mistaken for a lightweight or thin one. And when a bit more oomph is called for, she has no trouble finding it.

All have brilliant diction (and sound was up to scratch), so we got to hear every pithy line. And what lines! Consider but one of Sondheim's songs, the opening number, in which he nails the very essence and character of comedy and espouses a whole philosophical dissertation on its intrinsic, elevating value, albeit in the economical space of but a few verses.

Something familiar,
Something peculiar,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Something appealing,
Something appalling,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns;
Bring on the lovers, liars and clowns!

Old situations,
New complications,
Nothing portentous or polite;
Tragedy tomorrow,
Comedy tonight!

All-in-all, barring a few fumbles and stumbles, and the somewhat questionable casting of Ms Rowe, this show is seventh heaven for musical tragics, Sondheim addicts and anyone else who wants, or needs, to lose themselves in a better, more emotionally rewarding world than the one we tend to inhabit every day. It's good to be reminded of the depth and breadth of experience our hearts and minds can offer us. A night spent side-by-side, cheek-by-jowl, with Sondheim, means we'll be opened to laughter, tears, melancholy, introspection, bitterness, generosity, exuberance and more.

Markey, De Ferranti and Cormack do a fine job of opening that very can of worms. Rest assured, too, that even if you know nothing of Sondheim or musicals, you're bound to know and love at least some of these songs.


Director Neil Gooding

Venue: The Seymour Centre, Sydney
Dates: April 12 – 16, 2011
Times: Tues – Sat @ 8pm, Sat Matinee @ 3pm
Tickets: $55 ($50 concession). Booking fees may apply.
Bookings: 02 9351 7940

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