What do West Side Story, Gypsy and Follies all have in common? They were all penned by musical theatre doyen Stephen Sondheim. Side By Side is a jovial celebration of part of this witty lyricist’s cannon peppered with anecdotal tales from Stuart Pedlar – the original Musical Director on many of Sondheim’s greatest productions. Stripped back renditions brought to life by just three singers who are accompanied by two pianists makes for an intimate but exquisite evening. As we are transported into the rehearsal room of Sondheim’s mind to revel in “something familiar, something peculiar” and as the Company lyrics are uttered in Side By Side, there really is “something for everyone”.
Musical numbers are grouped together by overarching themes such as marriage or relationships. Although each piece differs, there are certainly stylistic threads that intrinsically pulsate through his work, such as the witty asides in ‘You Must Meet My Wife’ which are echoed in the frenetic ‘Getting Married Today’. Also Sarah Redmond repeatedly playing the manic and bitterly jaded characters across a variety of numbers accentuates Sondheim’s penchant for archetypal repetition in his characterisation. Redmond’s foil is nightingale-esque songbird Marianne Benedict, whose soaring operatic quality lends itself perfectly to Maria’s more delicate ‘I Have a Love’ from the iconic West Side Story. Not to be typecast as the ditzy air hostess in ‘Barcelona’ (Company), Benedict surprises in the second act with the a gritty and poignant portrayal of ‘Losing My Mind’ (Follies).
Although our final vocalist of the evening Grant McConvey shines in more comedic numbers such as ‘Could I Leave You?’ (Follies) and as the browbeaten husband in ‘The Little Things You Do Together’, in songs that require a strong lower register he struggles. A problem that could be easily avoided with another male in cast to share the vocal load. That said McConvey does seem to delight when in ‘You Could Drive a Person Crazy’ (Company), he was called upon to sing and strut his stuff as the third female part.
I’ve sat through many evenings playing tribute to a composer, but what sets Side By Side apart is that fact that Pedlar worked alongside Sondheim himself which gives his quips a sense of gravitas, and also our brilliant melodic trio who deliver number after number with gumption and effortless gusto. Sondheim turns 85 this year, and he is one of the best musical theatre composers of our time, and for me Side By Side is a fitting tribute and celebration of his work.
Side by Side is playing at the Jack Studio Theatre until 26 September. For tickets and more information, see the Jack Studio Theatre website. Photo by Scott Rylander.