Sondheim music engages audience with cavalcade of songs

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by Bob Evans

Electricity surged through the audience as Kansas City Rep opened their newest show, “Side by Side by Sondheim” to an enthusiastic and appreciative audience, Friday, Feb. 3 at UMKC’s Spencer Hall.

The super sophisticated stage setting featured a red velvet curtain and two baby grand pianos, two talented pianists, two pair of singers, beautiful projections, elegant costumes, dramatic lighting, and great sound design. All aspects of the cabaret-style production added to the luxury of the show.

“Side by Side by Sondheim” celebrated the genius of Stephen Sondheim, composer and lyricist with selections from both his hits and misses. The beauty of the show pointed to music of his early career starting with his lyricist skills when paired with musical legend, Irving Berlin for Broadway’s “West Side Story.”

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Music and lyrics filled the auditorium as his songbook unfurled show after show that he collaborated to write and also the Broadway musicals where he labored alone to create both music and lyrics. Each show title and song name was projected to help audiences appreciate the breadth of his works.

“West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “A Little Night Music,” “Do I Hear a Waltz,” “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Follies,” are just a sampling of the musicals associated with Sondheim’s early career. “Side by Side by Sondheim” highlights his early career up through 1977, when the show first appeared on Broadway and the London stage.

“Nominated for both London’s Olivier Award and Broadway’s Tony Award for Best Musical, ‘Side by Side by Sondheim’ celebrates the music and lyrics of Pulitzer-, Tony-, and Academy Award-winning composer Stephen Sondheim. ‘Side by Side by Sondheim’ ran in London and New York for well over a thousand performances, making it one of the most successful musical revues of all time,” KC Rep announced.

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“KC Rep audiences love Sondheim – among our biggest hits of all time are ‘Sunday in the Park with George,’ ‘Into the Woods,’ and ‘Company,’” Artistic Director Eric Rosen, said. “‘Side by Side’ takes us back to Sondheim’s most prolific period, from when he was a young artist writing lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s music in ‘West Side Story’ to the triumphs of musicals like ‘A Little Night Music’ that made him a legend. The show promises to be a dazzling and unforgettable night,” Eric Rosen, artistic director for KC Rep said.

The cast for “Side by Side by Sondheim,” Jenny Ashman, Shanna Jones, Orville Mendoza, Oliver Thornton , sparkled as the show began. The cast needed an audience to electrify and push their performances to the heights established for opening night. Electrify, they did. Energy just exploded from the stage from the opening number through the rapid-fire medley of Sondheim songs that closed the show. Just watching the cast perform, one could plainly see they enjoyed working together and now performing for an audience who reflected their energy with thunderous applause to each ditty.

Paramount to the production, the cast introduced each song with some added insight as to its inclusion into the show, Sondheim’s process, or the relevance of the lyrics. They pointed out the strength and power of Sondheim’s lyrics deal mostly with relationships. Therein lies the gem of his music.

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The quartet of performers sang solos, duets, in trios, and quartet as they each developed their musical selections to fit the evening. Many of the songs were obscure pieces and some from completely forgotten musicals. Still, the music and lyrics collaborated to create a piece worth hearing. The show allowed them to display an array of emotional styles from comedic to emotional deliveries. The most dramatic was “I’m Still Here”, and the most somber was the melodic “Send in the Clowns” before which the original intent of the song was discussed, along with the mentioning of the original title “Send in the Fools.”

As a whole, the cast performed to perfection. Just when one would think Shanna Jones presented all of the humor on the ladies side, Jenny Ashman let go with the funniest “Broadway Baby” number. In a change of sex renditions, the usually female song “Send in the Clowns” came from Oliver Thornton. “Marry Me a Little” allowed Orville Mendoza, to take the spotlight. Shanna Jones belted “I’m Still Here.” And, the hits just kept rolling. The cast performed about 30 of Sondheim’s songs in the two acts. And toward the end, they sang a medley of nearly 25 of his songs in a fun, finale.

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Overall the show is a flashy composite of Sondheim’s early works. Just like thoroughbreds chomping at the bit awaiting the start of a race, the cast demonstrated that they liked the show, understood the lyrics, needed an audience to push their performances over the top, and generally enjoyed working together. Magic happens when all that combines and sparks the audience.

Even though the vocalists provide the spunk and lyrics, the two keyboard masters are an equal part of the production. Music director Anthony T. Edwards and Daniel Doss remained on stage the entire time and hammered the intricate Stephen Sondheim score. The two baby grands get a through workout with Sondheim’s difficult scores. Both musicians demonstrated their mastery of his music and the subtleties of it. Their keyboards displayed the frenzy of “Another Hundred People” and the soft melodic tone for “Send in the Clowns.”

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For opening night, a mixed crowd of young and mature attended. Only a few teenagers and pre-teens attended. That’s probably the expectations of the Rep. The show music dates from late 1950s to 1976. Adults would be more familiar with the music and the composer.

Performances run January 27 through February 19, 2017 at Spencer Theatre on the UMKC campus. For tickets and more information contact the KC Rep Box Office at 816.235.2700 or the KC Rep ticket website.

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Tags: KC Rep, “Side by Side by Sondheim,” Kansas City, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment, Kansas City Theater

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