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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Everything's Warm and Cozy at
Women's Theatre Side by Side by Sondheim

Also see Bob's review of Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods

Side by Side by Sondheim
Lynn Hart, Tim Metz, Warren Helms, Kathleen Clancy, Joseph Elefante, Stearns Matthews and Andrea Quinn 
The intimate space of the Women's Theater Company provides an ideal setting for its warmly entertaining production of the 1977 British import revue Side by Side by Sondheim.

While the songs largely feature music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, there is a good representation of very early Sondheim lyrics set to the music of Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, Richard Rodgers and Mary Rodgers. The songs are sometimes presented as built around a theme (i.e., marriage), but more often they are grouped by the musical for which they were written. They flow amazingly well given the delightfully casual tone conveyed throughout via the witty and informative "continuity" written by Ned Sherrin, who narrated and directed the original production both in London and on Broadway.

Although the songs have varied in succeeding productions, the current production retains the same extensive song stack as the original Broadway production. Originally performed by three singer-actors (Julia McKenzie, Millicent Martin and David Kernan) and a narrator (Sherrin), Sondheim is here performed by five singer-actors and the extraordinary Warren Helms, who, in addition to narrating, sings, is musical director and provides piano accompaniment. Although the Broadway production had two pianists, Helms' extraordinary keyboard will more than satisfy the most critical listener. A most accomplished musician, Helms is well versed in the Sondheim canon. The pace, rhythm and smoothness of his accompaniment are a delight to the ear, and it perfectly underscores the vocals. His solo sections on "Losing My Mind" (Follies) are powerful and haunting. As I listened, I found myself thinking that I would love to attend a Helms piano recital of Sondheim's music. Helms is an unassuming, droll narrator, and his unforced vocals reflect his musicality and understanding of the material. Tim Metz, who is on bass briefly but deftly, assists Helms with a bit of the continuity.

Lynn Hart would be an asset to any production of Side by Side. She interprets and delivers the lyrics beautifully in a voice lent depth and character by its vibrato. Adding a charming comic presence when called for, Hart delights with both the wicked "I Never Do Anything Twice" (commissioned for a film) and the droll "The Boy From ..." (The Mad Show, music by Mary Rodgers). Her duet with Warren Helms on "The Little Things You Do Together" (Company) is a total delight. The biggest mystery here is why Hart hasn't been assigned to sing "Send in the Clowns".

The likeable Joseph Elefante interprets his lyrics well. His duet with Lynn Hart on "You Must Meet My Wife" (A Little Night Music) nicely captures its nuanced humor.

The highlight of the performances of Kathleen Clancy and the operatic Andrea Quinn is their dramatically intense and beautifully sung duet "A Boy Like That"/"I Have a Love" (West Side Story, music by Leonard Bernstein). However, Clancy's stilted, studied "Send in the Clowns" (Night Music) is dull and without passion. Quinn's full-throated delivery works well on "Losing My Mind." However, she seems at a loss as to the meaning of "Another Hundred People" (Company), literally introducing us to another group of people who have just arrived in New York with each chorus. The escalating desperation of coping with the pressure of living in the Big Apple is absent. When Quinn realizes that this song is about the unraveling of Marta, and not new New Yorkers, she should be able to knock it out of the park.

Stearns Matthews is a pleasant young man with a fine voice. However, he lacks the style and presence needed for "Beautiful Girls," and both the comic and dramatic skills to realize "Buddy's Blues." As soon as Matthews appeared on stage, I thought of Tulsa from Gypsy. And sure enough, during the extended medleys that close the second act, Matthews gets to smoothly and pleasantly deliver a bit of Tulsa's "All I Need is the Girl" (music by Jule Styne).

Lauren Moran Mills, who deservedly has become the go-to director at this theatre, keeps everything moving at a brisk and lively pace. Her insightful staging provides each song with a unique, enhancing setting. Her staging makes full use of the narrow theatre's wide stage. Choreographers Meridith Johnson and Mills create smooth and pleasing dance movement despite the fact that the production has not been cast with dancers.

Jonathan Wentz has designed a pleasant set featuring logos for Sondheim shows whose music is heard here. Roxie Zeek's second act formal black suits and dresses are most attractive and appropriate to the entire presentation. The first act costumes are more problematic. This is particularly true of the clashing purple shirt and tan suit worn by Elefante.

Women's Theater's Side by Side by Sondheim is a most enjoyable entertainment. It is likely to be a hot ticket for local audiences. With a little more thought and rehearsal time, this production would be a strong candidate for extended runs at small clubs and theatres everywhere.

Side by Side by Sondheim continues performances (Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 3 pm) through September 26, 2010, at the Women's Theatre Company at the Parsippany Arts Center, 1130 Knoll Road, Lake Hiawatha. Box Office:973-316-3033 / online: web.me.com/baked/Womens_Theater_Co./Welcome.html

Side by Side by Sondheim Music by Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, Richard Rodgers, and Mary Rodgers/ Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim / Continuity by Ned Sherrin

Cast
Kathleen Clancy, Joseph Elefante, Lynn Hart, Warren Helms, Stearns Matthews, Andrea Quinn


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- Bob Rendell



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