It’s a challenge, at first, not to think of Signature Theatre’s production of the revue
Side by Side by Sondheim as a mere musical appetizer, with the main course being the Kennedy Center’s ambitious, grand-scale version of Sondheim’s Follies. As it turns out, though, there is plenty here for Sondheim aficionados to chew on in this often engaging look at the master’s work from the first 20 years of his career.
Indeed, director Matthew Gardiner has put together a fine cast of three — Nancy Anderson, Sherri L. Edelen, and Matthew Scott — and choreographed a substantial amount of movement for the performers, helping to fill the Max Theatre with energy.
Since this aural trek covers Sondheim’s work only through 1976, when this revue was initially produced in London, some of the composer’s most innovative and haunting music is not heard. Still, it’s a testament to Sondheim’s legacy that there are 31 tunes here culled from a dozen productions, with both Company and Follies particularly well represented, alongside some more obscure selections.
Gardiner has re-written the original Ned Sherrin book for Signature’s savvy audience. Thus, there are jokes at Signature’s expense, such as the reference to the cast being “one-tenth the size of Sunset Boulevard, which played the same space recently, or the number of songs potentially making the evening “longer than the run of Giant,” which premiered here some seasons back.
The trio of performers has to work their way through the first five numbers before waking up the audience with “Getting Married Today” from Company. The song is a challenge, as it combines rapid-fire patter and operatic passages, both of which have to be performed perfectly. Fortunately, Edelin deftly blends humor and pathos as Amy, a woman facing her doubts on the big day, and races through the patter without missing a beat; Anderson does the heavy lifting with the melodramatic aria segments, and Scott is appropriately earnest and emotionally accessible as Amy’s husband-to-be Paul.
The next big moment doesn’t arrive until we’re deep into act two (passing by Edelin’s subdued rendition of the iconic “Send in the Clowns”) when we get to Anderson’s bravura performance of the tongue-twisting “The Boy From…” (from The Mad Show).
The show then ends on a series of very high notes as Anderson draws us in with intimate emotion in “Losing My Mind,” Scott puts his stamp on “Being Alive,” and Edelin delivers all the show-stopping potential of “I’m Still Here” with an emotionally combustible mix of rueful introspection and resolve.
Mischa Kachman’s scenic design gives us a look at both the glitz and the grit of Sondheim’s work. With the sleek lines, sparkly accents, and burnished wood of the set, including a light-bulb framed mock proscenium at the rear, we get the glitz. With the grim brick wall and catwalk exposed through that proscenium, and with the hundreds of manuscript pages showing music and lyrics undergoing hand-written revisions and cross-outs papering the walls and floor, we also get some appreciation of how Sondheim combines genius and toil to create magic.