Sondheim once more, with feeling
Forget the gimmicks, 'Side By Side' is all about the songs, and singers
WATERTOWN -- Yes, Stephen Sondheim did write the lyrics for "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" in Jule Styne's "Gypsy." But the New Repertory Theatre's production of "Side By Side By Sondheim," the 1976 compilation that strings together that and many other early Sondheim works, works best when it drops the gimmicks and just lets the songs speak for themselves.
"Side By Side" began as a benefit for a London theater, then quickly became a staple on both sides of the Atlantic. It's the ideal offering for a company that wants to serve up an evening of sophisticated music without staging a full production -- and so it was a natural choice for New Rep's producing artistic director, Rick Lombardo, when he decided to experiment with presenting a summertime show.
Lombardo directed a memorable "Sweeney Todd" a few years back at New Rep's old home in Newton High lands; he clearly loves and understands Sondheim's work. In this show, though, he sometimes seems worried that the songs themselves won't sustain our interest, so he pushes them with labored jokes in the updated narration that loosely links the segments, goofy hats and trompe l'oeil bikini-painted T-shirts to goose the silliness of some comic numbers, and some out-and-out mugging by the generally impeccable Leigh Barrett.
The good news is that Barrett, as always, is in fine voice -- if anything, it's a little too fine, as she sometimes drowns out her equally talented colleagues, Maryann Zschau and Brendan McNab, and sometimes sounds too operatic for Sondheim's dryly ironic tone. Still, to hear her sing the haunting "Losing My Mind" is unforgettable. Her progression from regret to grief to something that does look very much like a nervous breakdown is at once subtle and dramatic -- a whole play in one song.
As for Zschau, she plays the naughty innuendo of "I Never Do Anything Twice" for all it's worth; she doesn't really need the Freudian cigar she flourishes to demonstrate that the things she doesn't do twice are not along the lines of balancing her checkbook or dusting the china. She's less stagy and more genuinely amusing in the showbiz survivor's anthem "I'm Still Here," and she truly comes into her own with "Send in the Clowns." I could not have imagined that I would ever hear anything new in this overexposed tearjerker, but Zschau, by letting it breathe and not forcing the emotion, makes it irresistibly fresh.
McNab, an 11th-hour replacement for the ailing Andrew Giordano, brings the refined acting skills, excellent dancing, and expressive voice that have made him a new Boston favorite. At Monday's press opening, he was sometimes hard to hear, but what he lacked in volume he made up in presence and style. His soft, lovely rendering of "I Remember," from the obscure "Evening Primrose," is a particularly affecting solo, as is the jauntily rueful "Anyone Can Whistle."
If only he hadn't had to camp it up so much in many ensemble numbers, switching genders to send up the Andrews Sisters, sashaying in the background of "The Boy From . . .," or joining Barrett and Zschau for the bump-and-grind of those "Gypsy" strippers. A little boy-mocks-girl goes a long way, and here it veers dangerously close to the line between dated-but-mildly-amusing and dated-and-mildly-offensive.
The attempts to make the narration sound less dated, meanwhile, are mostly just lame. Emerson student and WERS host Jonathan Colby stumbles a bit over some lines, too, which doesn't make jokes about onstage nudity or benighted ladies in "Wicked" T-shirts any funnier.
As Colby, a devotee of musical-theater history, surely knows along with everyone else onstage, Sondheim's best songs are brilliantly crafted, intellectually and emotionally stunning reinventions of classic musical forms. Strippers may need a gimmick. But the simplest and most affecting moments here -- and there are many -- remind us that all Sondheim needs is a voice.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.