Side by Side Shines and Sizzles
Moments of tenderness, passion, low and high comedy, wistfulness, seduction, sensation from the booming “Opening Number (Comedy Tonight)” through the longing “Anyone Can Whistle” to the snappy 27-song medley and “Side by Side” finale, the Plush Room production of Side by Side by Sondheim burns with a controlled exuberance and a modulated brilliance. A recapitulation of the most popular, most challenging and most obscure of Stephen Sondheim’s pre-Sweeney Todd compositions, Side by Side… dramatizes Sondheim’s remarkable range and human insight. Songs about marriage, loss, striving, New York, Broadway—songs about singing and performance: these cross the boundaries of “popular” and “classical”; anyone who has ever found Sondheim’s work either too dense, too flat or too light will be astonished and swept away by the flash, the crispness, the control, the provocativeness, the melody of Side by Side by Sondheim.
Produced and directed by William Brewer II, with musical direction by Darren Server, this production of Side by Side… began at San Francisco State University with very nearly the same cast that appears at the York Hotel’s Plush Room (940 Sutter Street). Brewer, who has taught in universities for eight years, took the book for this cabaret revue and injected an energy and a sparkle that is often literally breathtaking. Side by Side… has passed its 200th performance at the Plush Room in its eighth month, a testament to the staying power and beauty of the production.
The cast includes two pianists, Server and John Walko, narrator Tim Di Pasqua (providing informative and entertaining gloss with a very slight camp edge), and, on stage, Anne Tofflemire, William Bear and Mary Jo McConnell (the only performer “new” to the show). Tofflemire has a brassy range that runs from the dizzy to the sultry, shining brightest on “The Boy from …” (from The Mad Show) and the powerful “Broadway Baby’’ (Follies). However, the excellence is nearly uniform, as McConnell displays remarkable dynamics and presence (notably in her resurrection of the unjustly-maligned “Send in the Clowns,” from A Little Night Music) while Bear modulates timbre and expression in a series of roles (including the touching “I Remember,” from Evening Primrose, and the hilarious “Could I Leave You,” Follies). The entire cast shines as cockney sailors in the striking, beautifully-choreographed “Pretty Lady” (Pacific Overtures) and as the Andrews Sisters in a sizzling parody from Company.
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First published in the Key: This Week in San Francisco (November, 1984)