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STAGE REVIEW : Inconsistency Mars ‘Side by Side’ Revue

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Stephen Sondheim’s show tunes are more than just songs--they’re stories, detailed narratives of love, hope, despair and self-reliance. In the hands of a talented singer, Sondheim’s songs are transcendent in their beauty, full of wit and passion. In the hands of a novice, Sondheim’s songs are a terrible waste.

Both extremes can be seen in The Theatre in Old Town’s production of “Side by Side by Sondheim.”

“Side by Side” is a joyous collection of Sondheim’s early writing, including songs from shows such as “West Side Story,” “Follies” and “Gypsy.” The two-hour revue has no plot, and the songs are completely unrelated, aside from their common author, and they range from staged costumed skits to straight solo performances.

The 33 tunes not only demonstrate the composer’s prodigious output of high-quality material, they also show off his versatility--his equal aptitude for the silly and the sublime.

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Gordon Cantiello’s staging is uneven, but the quality of the show seems to be linked to individual performances rather than the director’s efforts. Two performers, Russ Lorenson and Judy Milstein, light up the stage whenever they sing. The rest of the cast struggles with the material throughout the show.

Milstein stops the show with her ribald rendition of “I Never Do Anything Twice,” a comic anthem about a jaded madame written for the film “The Seven Percent Solution.” Milstein draws huge laughs as her cartoonish character claims she will have sex “once for a lark,” later adding that “doing it twice loses its spark.”

The audience also thrilled to Lorenson. An elegant performer, he brought a supple voice and strong sense of characterization to all his songs. And he shined with an understated charm in songs like “Barcelona” and “Getting Married Today,” two tunes from the musical “Company.”

The other three cast members were inconsistent throughout. Ron Banks possesses a powerful tenor but displays a lack of emotional range in his singing. Banks does a bang-up job with the ballad “Anyone Can Whistle,” but his consistently smug, smarmy stage presence undermines his ability to communicate the sincerity in Sondheim’s lyrics.

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Similarly, Anita Colet and Teri Sinclair hit all the right notes but failed to convey emotional honesty in their songs. Colet is too one-dimensional in her approach--she looks happy or sad or confused in all her numbers, but fails to show any sincere passion or texture. Sinclair’s performance is scattered and haggard, laced with meaningless hand gestures and mugging.

Aside from singing, Milstein also introduces the songs and places them in context. Midway through the show, Milstein spins a delightful anecdote about a 15-year-old Sondheim who asked Oscar Hammerstein for a “frank, professional” critique of his first musical. According to Milstein, Hammerstein was very harsh in his criticism, until he saw the young Sondheim’s quivering lip and devastated expression.

Eventually, Hammerstein encouraged Sondheim to keep writing. A generation of musical theater fans remain grateful.

Eric Hanson’s production design is intentionally minimal. The set consists of a large platform with a staircase for the balcony scenes, a costume closet and two pianos on either side of the stage. Cleverly, Hanson incorporates The Theatre in Old Town backstage area into his scenic design.

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Likewise, the offstage actors remain visible backstage when they’re not performing. Unfortunately, the cast didn’t sit still on opening night, chatting instead with one another, moving around, opening and closing doors in full view of the audience and creating a horrible distraction.

Such amateurish behavior is unforgiveable.

As it stands, this production hits its mark occasionally, but too many misfires make for a sub-par evening of musical theater.

‘Side by Side by Sondheim’

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Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, with additional music by Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers and Jule Styne. Director, Gordon Cantiello. Music director, Janie Prim. Choreographer, Jill Anthony. Sets by Eric Hanson. Lighting by Mark Sell. Costumes by Paul Craig. With Ron Banks, Anita Colet, Russ Lorenson, Judy Milstein and Teri Sinclair. At 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, with 2 p.m. matinee Saturdays, through September 22. Tickets are $15. At The Theatre in Old Town, 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town. 688-2492.


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