Yes, Virginia, there was a Stephen Sondheim before Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday In The Park with George, Into The Woods, Assassins, Dick Tracy, and Passion—as the 1976 musical revue Side By Side By Sondheim makes perfectly clear. 

L.A.’s The Attic Theater showcases “early Sondheim,” the Sondheim of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Pacific Overtures in a tip-top intimate stage revival, which also features music by Richard Rodgers, Jule Styne, and Leonard Bernstein, for whom Sondheim wrote the lyrics of Do I Hear A Waltz?, Gypsy, and West Side Story.

Under Dane Whitlock’s imaginative direction, a cast of up-and-coming young musical theater talents bring 50s, 60s, and 70s Sondheim to vibrant, exciting life, backed by the impeccable onstage piano accompaniment of music director Richard Berent.

The original production of Side By Side By Sondheim featured a cast of three—one man, two women.  Whitlock opts for five performers, with the same basic boy/girl ratio, thereby upping the show’s variety and excitement levels considerably.  Jenny Ashman, Jennifer Blake, Joe Donohoe, Morgan Duke, and Nick Sarando bring their unique gifts to Side By Side at the Attic, and since each is in his or her own way so very terrific, I will refrain from playing favorites.  In truth, there’s not a weak link in the cast, each of whom gets moment after moment to shine.

Ashman is simply wonderful, whether in soprano or belter mode—soloing “Another Hundred People,” “Broadway Baby,” and a torchy “Losing My Mind.”  Blake (another fine soprano) delightfully channels Fifi D’Orsay of Les Folies Bergères in the saucy “Ah Paris,” and gives Carmen Miranda a run for her money with the hilarious “The Boy From,” whose complete title should be “The Boy From Tacarembo La Tumbe Del Fuego Santa Malipas Zatatecas La Junta Del Sol Y Cruz.  Donohoe’s voice (a cross between Broadway and Sinatra) is a perfect fit for a pair of pensive ballads ,“I Remember” and “Anyone Can Whistle,” and the dramatic “Could I Leave You?” whose lyric “Could I bury my rage with a boy half your age in the grass? Bet your ass!” takes on provocative new meaning when sung by a man. Duke has a rich, smoky alto which proves just right for “Send In The Clowns,” the Marlene Dietrich-esqe “I Never Do Anything Twice,” from the movie The Seven Percent Solution, and “The Miller’s Son.” Sarando gets to show off his tenor pipes as Company’s Bobby in the title tune from Company, a powerful “Being Alive,” and the manic “Buddy’s Blues” from Follies.

As beautifully performed as the solos are, it’s the duets and group numbers that allow Whitlock and company to put their distinctive stamp on a show that’s been done time and time again over the past thirty-four years. Highlights include Ashman and Duke as Gypsy’s Dainty June and Rose singing “If Momma Was Married,” and Donohoe telling a not particularly enthusiastic Sarando, “You Must Meet My Wife,” from A Little Night Music.  (In Night Music, it’s Desiree who’s not eager to meet her former lover Fredrik’s wife Anne.  Here’s it’s a man in jealous-ex mode.) Blake and Duke duet “Can That Boy Foxtrot,” with a banana, cucumber, and Italian sausage to illustrate that boy’s “foxtrotting” skills.  Sarando and Blake join voices in the wistful “Barcelona” and Donohoe, Duke, and Ashman are in three-part Cockney harmony for “Pretty Lady.”  Duke and Ashman soar in “A Boy Like That” and “I Have A Love,” a pair of songs the two blondes may never get to sing in an actual production of West Side Story.

Blake gets laughs galore singing “Getting Married Today” at breakneck speed, backed by Ashman and Sarando.  Joe introduces “Beautiful Girls” Duke and Blake wearing Follies style headdresses adorned with hanging Sondheim show posters. The entire cast join voices for “Comedy Tonight/Love Is In The Air,” “Little Things You Do Together,” “Everybody Says Don’t,” and “Side By Side.”

Finally, a pair of songs usually sung by all-female trios allow the very male Sarando to join Blake and Ashman in the zippy “You Could Drive A Person Crazy,” and later join Duke and Blake as stripper threesome Mazeppa, Electra, and Tessie Tura from Gypsy.

In between songs, the company give just enough Sondheim background and trivia to make the evening not only entertaining but elucidating as well.

Set designer Brian Shnipper has created a simple but elegant and effective New York City backdrop for the festivities, nicely lit by lighting designer Christopher Singleton. Brad Griffith serves as assistant director, with additional choreography by Matthew Gose.  Megan Evanich is production stage manager.

With its pre-1980s Sondheim songs, the Attic’s Side By Side By Sondheim is a sure bet to please longtime Sondheim enthusiasts, and its dynamic young cast will make this production equally appealing to a more youthful crowd as well. I enjoyed this Side By Side a good deal more than the bigger stage, bigger budget 2004 Pasadena Playhouse revival.  It’s a case of smaller and younger making for two absolutely terrific hours of Sondheim magic. 

The Attic Theatre, 5429 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
March 14, 2010

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