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STAGE REVIEWS : ‘SIDE BY SIDE’

Stephen Sondheim has arguably been the most important songwriter in the American theater for the past two decades. There are few as adept at probing the foibles of modern love and living, all the while maintaining subtle wit and what can only be described as good taste.

But in its production of “Side by Side by Sondheim,” South Coast Musical Theatre misses the point, offering a blustery, overdone compendium of the composer’s greatest hits: “Follies,” “Gypsy,” “Company,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and his other musicals.

This rather demanding show needs heady, inspired direction to fully exploit the suave intelligence of Sondheim’s songs, and a cast with exceptional voices to handle his challenging wordplay and often difficult melodies. Unfortunately, we don’t get either here.

The most troubling aspect of the production is that Sondheim’s greatest charm--his ability to be highbrow yet insouciant, funny but not rude--just doesn’t surface as often as it should. There are a few good moments (“Can That Boy Fox-Trot” and “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” stand out), but certainly not enough to generate the gleeful momentum this show is capable of.

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It’s difficult to hold one person responsible, but director Daniel Trevino must face most of the music. He’s decided to play it broad and blatant; all the mugging and histrionics sabotage the composer’s more cerebral humor and even trivialize a tender, evocative song such as “Send in the Clowns.”

The cast (Michele Loven, Russell Crabtree, P. Jae Stanley and Michael Larche) try hard to wrest as much emotion or humor as possible out of the numbers, and it shows. All are guilty to varying degrees, but Loven is the chief culprit. This is disappointing, because she is easily the most seasoned and professional singer of the foursome. At times, she caresses Sondheim’s passages beautifully, but even these raptures are soon ambushed by cloying overacting.

“Side by Side by Sondheim” runs through Nov. 23 at South Coast Musical Theatre at University High School’s Little Theatre, 4771 Campus Drive, Irvine. For information, call (714) 640-6306.


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