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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

Side by Side by Sondheim

Cranwell Resort

Side by Side Cast
Michele Ragusa
(Photo: Kevin Sprague)
Stephen Sondheim is one of our national treasures. His sophisticated lyrics and music broke new ground for musical theater. It is thus entirely fitting for two Berkshire theaters to want to honor the composer-lyricist in the year of his 75th birthday.

Barrington Stage opted to mount a lavish production of the rarely produced Follies. Berkshire Theatre Festival has settled for more modest Sondheim evening, with Side by Side by Sondheim, a revue which has become a standard on the regional and community theater circuit because, unlike Follies, it can rely on its assemblage of Sondheim's pre-1975 ouevre to delight audiences even when done with a minimal budget.

Having these two revivals playing virtually side by side, is a mixed blessing for Berkshire Theatre Festival. As Barrington Stage would have been wise to put their last season's hit, The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee on their Main Stage, Berkshire Theatre Festival's revival of this small musically rewarding revue would have worked better in its smaller Unicorn Theater. That way it would complement the Broadway-like sizzler and avoid comparisons as to which Sondheim offers more bang and pizazz for the Berkshire theater goer's buck.

This is not to say that the latest outing for this revue doesn't provide enjoyable proof that Sondheim's songs (even the few included here that landed on the cutting room floor) are brilliant enough to be appreciated outside the context of the shows for which they were written. In fact, director Gary M. English would have done well to trust the material and keep the staging simple and allow the performers to sing without quite so much stage-y business. Yoshi Tanokura's silver and blue set is a handsome alternative to the stools that are the more usual props for this type of show. Yet, this set only tends to underscore the Main Stage's somewhat under-populated look.

The three singers plus narrator set-up is the same configuration as that of the 1976 London premiere created as a fundraiser for Cleo Laine and John Dankworth’s annual London music festival which ended up crossing the Atlantic for a 390 performance Broadway run. However, there have been many variations which might have been more apt here; for example, with a fourth singer instead of a narrator who joins in only at the end or with six to nine singers. A larger cast might have made for a more elegant production with a less over staged feeling.

My wish for a larger cast is not to imply that the three main performers -- Allison Briner, Michele Ragusa, and Marcus Neville -- don't have fine voices and do a good job of delivering the score that weaves a tapestry from a wide range of sources, including Sondheim's collaborations with other composers and focusing on his talent for developing complete little dramas in a single lyric.

Ragusa whom I've seen and liked before is the standout. It's interesting to hear the " I'm Still Here" anthem from Follies sung by a young performer after having just heard it belted out by the more feisty type of older chorus girl for whom it was intended. Briner and Neville too have their shining moments. Briner is particularly good in her "Send in the Clowns" solo from A Little Night Music and Neville displays his ability to capture Sondheimian wistfulness in "Anyone Can Whistle."

As the narrator Jessica Walter adds some interesting background and biographical tidbits, but some of her tossed-in asides -- notably a Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky comment as part of her introduction to "You Must Meet My Wife" -- fall flat. Perhaps if director English allowed Walter to leave the music stand holding her script during in between her introductions, she could memorize rather than read the text instead and not have to force an enthralled look on her face while watching her colleagues perform.

To sum up, if you're a Stephen Sondheim fan and have never seen Side by Side by Sondheim, you'll find listening to some of these crème de la crème Sondheim songs up to Pacific Overtures an enjoyable, musically rich two hours.

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; with music by Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers and Richard Rodgers, with continuity by Ned Sherrin
Director: Gary M. English
Musical Director: Steven Freeman
Choreographer: Gerry McIntyre
Cast: Allison Briner, Marcus Neville, Michele Ragusa and Jessica Walter
Scenic Designer: Yoshi Tanokura
Costumes: David Murin
Lighting Designer: Daniel J. Kotlowitz
Pianist: Robert Hirschhorn
Sound Design: Ray Schilke
Running Time: 2 hours, 21 minutes including one intermission
Berkshire Theatre Festival/Main Stage, Stockbridge, MA. 413/298-5536 www.berkshire
From June 21 through July 9; opening June 24th Tickets: from $46 to $70 (If you go Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, $59.95 will buy you a three course prix fixe dinner at the Red Lion Inn plus show ticket. (Tax and drinks not included.)
. Monday thru Saturday evenings at 8 pm; matinees Thursday and Saturday at 2 .
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 6/24/05 performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Comedy Tonight/Love Is in the Air
  • Little Things
  • You Must Meet My Wife
  • I'm Not Getting Married Today
  • I Remember Sky
  • Can That Boy Foxtrot!
  • CompanyIntro/Another Hundred People
  • Barcelona
  • Marry Me A Little
  • I Never Do Anything Twice
  • Beautiful Girls-- Ah Paree! -- Buddy's Blues
  • Broadway Baby
  • You Could Drive a Person Crazy
Act Two
  • Everybody Says Don't
  • Anyone Can Whistle
  • -
  • Send in the Clowns
  • We're Gonna Be All Right
  • A Boy Like That/I Have a Love
  • The Boy From
  • Pretty Lady
  • If Momma Was Married
  • Losing My Mind
  • Could I Leave You?
  • I'm Still Here
  • Your're Gonna to Love Tomorrow
  • Side by Side, Encore
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