Theatre is unpredictable. Sometimes a highly capitalized Broadway touring company offers a show lays an egg (see TheatreStorm’s recent review of “Mean Girls”) and sometimes a local community theatre works a miracle.
Well, it’s miracle time in Sonoma, as Sonoma Arts Live offers up a spectacular production of the Sondheim tribute musical “Side By Side By Sondheim.” This is not a play, but a revue of Sondheim’s finest work, first presented in 1974, years before some of his greatest accomplishments.. No matter. Even by 1974, Sondheim had proven himself an artist for the ages.
Nothing in this production is disappointing. I admit I arrived at the opening night with a bad attitude. I’d had a long week, made a last minute decision to attend, and struggled to take my seat with an open mind.
Within 30 seconds of the opening number, my heart was soaring, and a day later I still haven’t been able to wipe the smile off my face. Thank you, Sonoma Arts, director Andrew Smith, musical director Ellen Patterson, and four wonderful singer/actors from the bottom of my heart. And thank you, Stephen Sondheim, of course.
The script of this revue offers no specific guidance as to setting or staging. It’s just a collection of songs. Director Andrew Smith made the wonderfully effective decision of staging the entire piece in a New York apartment, with a skyline visible out the window, theatrical posters on the walls, comfortable furniture to create a variety of nooks and crannies, and two grand pianos for the accompanists. Congrats to designer Carl Jordan. The effect is that we are attending a delightful New York salon for Broadway performers, who just felt like getting together and singing their hearts out around the piano. And that’s what they do, God bless ’em.
If you don’t know Sondheim and wonder what all the fuss is about, you won’t find a better introduction to the master then this. During intermission, a relatively unsophisticated customer whose theatre experience was clearly limited, remarked to the producer in the lobby, “Gosh, I’ve never heard much of this Sondheim person! But these songs are REALLY INTERESTING!”
Indeed they are.
Sondheim often said, and it has been oft repeated, that his songs are actually tiny plays that tell complete stories. The story telling element of every song in this production has been thoroughly polished and choreographed, no doubt about it. But nothing musical has been given short shrift. Each of the singer/actors give thoroughly professional, even virtuosic performances. Likewise for the pianists, although the program unforgivably failed to credit them by name. (Hopefully someone from the company will read this review, and make a correction in the comments.)
Altogether, there were 30+ numbers included. Unfortunately, the program failed to identify them except by clever crossword-type clues (another misstep, dear producers). So, for example, one song is identified as “Missus Eating Midday”—which I guess is meant to indicate “The Ladies Who Lunch.” I am not smart enough to identify Sondheim’s titles with nothing but this list of clues, and would certainly have appreciated a backup “cheat sheet.” Folks who are introduced to Sondheim by this wonderful revue will be unable to look up the songs and the shows to continue their enjoyment. That is a pity. Fix this, please! Provide titles and the show each song is from for the folks to take home.
Nevertheless, the performances make up for all flaws. There is a sterling rendition of the aforementioned “Missus Eating Midday” (“The Ladies Who Lunch”)—a song held to be incredibly challenging, made famous by the great Elaine Stritch, and delivered brilliantly at Sonoma Arts by the great, award-winning Daniela Innocenti Beem who always delivers her Bay Area performances with New New York chops. Also delightful (and also difficult) was Maeve Smith’s hilarious delivery of “Imminent Matrimony” (I think the original title is “Not Getting Married Today”). She nails it.
I should also mention that most of the songs are not “solos” in that all four actors participate, sometimes singing portions of the song, but always actively engaged, moving about (the show is beautifully choreographed) and always interacting with each other and the main singer.
Those four actors are: Daniela Innocenti Beem, Maeve Smith, Jonathan Blue, and Alexei Ryan.
I’ve already mentioned brilliant work by Daniele Innocenti Beem and Maeve Smith. Also great, Jonathan Blue moved the audience to tears singing “The Act of Living” (I believe this would be “Being Alive” from “Company.”) As an added bonus, Jonathan Blue’s exceptional comedic skills also added a lot to almost every number. He’s a card, this one. The excellent Alexei Ryan surprises with the touching and rarely performed “(Ant.) Nobody Can Make A Puckered Sound” – which must be “Anyone Can Whistle” from the ill-fated musical of the same name.
Rounding out the cast is Rick Love as the Narrator/Master of Ceremonies who tells awful jokes (it’s a running gag) and manages to make them funny.
You shouldn’t miss “Side By Side By Sondheim.”
“Side By Side By Sondheim” continues at Sonoma Arts Live Theater Company through May 7, 2023. For further information, click here.
Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Side By Side By Sondheim” presented by Sonoma Arts Live Theater Company. Director: Andrew Smith. Musical Direction: Ellen Patterson. Light Design: Carl Jordan & Frank Sarubbi. Set Design and Builder: Carl Jordan. Sound Design: Tom Luekens. Graphic Deign: Sue Martin. Stage Dressing and Props: Jaime Love. Costumes: Sonoma Arts Live. Stage Manager: Dave Shirk. Asst. Stage Manager: Chris Matthews.
Woman 1: Daniela Innocenti Beem. Woman 2: Maeve Smith. Man 1: Jonathan Blue. Man 2: Alexei Ryan. Narrator: Rick Love.
2 thoughts on “Review: ‘Side By Side By Sondheim’ at Sonoma Arts Live (*****)”
So glad you loved the show, we are very proud of our talented cast , Director Andrew Smith and amazing Musical Director Ellen Patterson, and pianist Sergio Cabada.
Our playbills got hung up in transit and in our haste to have something to share, the unfortunate omission of our musicians happened. We are a small group of dedicated people trying our best! All will be remedied ASAP, Our fabulous Director’s puzzle answers are now available at every intermission for all!
Perfectly understandable. I’m so glad that pianists Ellen (I assume she was the second pianist as well as the Musical Director) and Sergio are credited and that the playlist (puzzle answers) are available to the audience.
It is a MARVELOUS production!!!