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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
Side by Side by Sondheim
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 Dankworths 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.