Theater Review: SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM (Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles)

by Samuel Garza Bernstein on July 23, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles

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EMOTIONAL TURMOIL AND MUSICAL BLISS

One of the pleasures of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s production of Side by Side by Sondheim is the experience of hearing voices without amplification. I have never been to a Broadway musical without a sound system and have often wondered what it was like. Did it always take an Ethel Merman to reach the back row? How did they put over the ballads? The Odyssey’s stages are small, certainly, but even 99-seat theaters often use wireless microphones. Sound coming directly from the person making it is vibrant and alive. The singing here is nuanced. The performers certainly go for broke at times, yet the quieter moments are intense and satisfying.

It makes for a rich evening that flies by. Happily. For I confess, beforehand I was a tad apprehensive at the running time of two hours for a review with no plot and no characters, and only songs from Sondheim’s pre-1976 catalogue. My trepidation proved ill-founded. Intermission came as a surprise, not as a relief, as, I am ashamed to admit, it sometimes does with longer shows; and I was impatient for the second act to begin.

Side by Side covers A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, Anyone Can Whistle and lesser known works from the television musical Evening Primrose and the film Seven Percent Solution — all with music and lyrics by Sondheim. His work as a lyricist with other composers is represented by West Side Story (Leonard Bernstein), Gypsy (Jule Styne), Do I Hear a Waltz? (Richard Rodgers) and The Mad Show (Mary Rodgers).

Clear themes emerge. Sondheim is fascinated by relationships, and many of the songs cover the highs, middles, and lows of love. Though he is often cited, and sometimes criticized, for his love of language, it is his exploration of inner identity that separates him from his forebears. Cole Porter loved language. Lorenz Hart was deeply emotional. Sondheim took things in a different direction, digging into the seemingly modern phenomenon of finding oneself unable to connect to other people at all: of feeling like an impostor in one’s own skin; the moments of crippling self-doubt than can lead to violent inner turmoil; not just angst, but existential despair.

Putting that over in performance is a tall order, especially when his complicated chord structures and rhythms are added in. The cast is excellent. A standout throughout is Rachel McLaughlan. She breaks your heart with “Send in the Clowns,” giving it an enormous range of feeling. The character comes fully alive, an actress acknowledging her romantic defeat, but also you see the ingénue she once was, the leading lady she became when she was at the height of her power, and the aging woman now, afraid, alone, trying to laugh at herself to keep from losing herself in sorrow.

McLaughlan is a riot singing “The Boy From…,” The Mad Show’s parody of “The Girl from Ipanema.” She looks dementedly hopeful as she takes giant breaths before ending each verse with, “The boy from Tacarembo la Tumba del Fuego Santa Malipas Zacatecas la Junta del Sol y Cruz.” That the object of her affection is gay is clear to us if not to her, as she sings, “Why are his trousers vermilion? / Why does he claim he’s Castilian? / Why do his friends call him Lillian? / And I hear at the end of the week, / he’s leaving to start a boutique.” What must have seemed risqué in 1966 is old hat now, yet she makes it feel fresh, like she is figuring it out right before our eyes.

I think the thing I love so much about McLaughlan is that she always seems on the edge of falling over an emotional cliff. Behind her eyes you see the crazy threatening to take over. She is a bit young now but would make an amazing Mrs. Lovett in Sweeny Todd one day, and I could easily see her as the Witch in Into the Woods, Sara Jane Moore in Assassins, Desiree in A Little Night Music, Rose in Gypsy, or Sally in Follies. She is a quintessential Sondheim performer.

Chris Kerrigan’s vocal range is spectacular. He has a rich command of tenor, effortlessly hitting unforced high notes, and even doing a serviceable falsetto when required (as when he comically makes up the third female voice in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company and “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” from Gypsy). His baritone register is lovely and full-bodied, and he manages a few steps into bass territory with ease. He hits his emotional stride in the second act with the title song from Anyone Can Whistle.

Sarah Busic has some strong moments, particularly “Another Hundred People” from Company. She is less effective in some of her other songs, particularly “Losing My Mind” from Follies, one of the most heartbreaking ballads ever written. It is a song that requires a contrasting sense of hopefulness to make the tragedy come alive. Busic starts and finishes in the same place, one of general sadness. Part of it is her youth. Few of Sondheim’s characters are young, and virtually none of them are anything as simple as young at heart. She is also the only cast member to have pitch problems. She blends well in the trio numbers, but in big emotional lines sometimes goes flat or sharp, singing straight tones without vibrato.

Mark D. Kaufman provides amiable, often deliciously deadpan narration. It is credited originally to the late British author and director Ned Sherrin, though it would seem some modifications have been made. Musical director Richard Berent’s vocal arrangements are elegant, director Dan Fishbach’s staging is quite nimble, and choreographer Imani G. Alexander’s work is deceptively simple — filling the small space effectively.

I do wish the singers’ gestures were a trifle less literal. Mimed sipping from a cup isn’t required every time there’s a line about drinking; and one should wait until the word “eunuch” is actually sung before cupping one’s crotch in a defensive crouch. Budget limitations notwithstanding, scenic designer Alex Kolmanovsky’s set seems a tad shoddy. Everything is shiny, which only serves to highlight the rough nature of its construction. And whoever had the idea to hang the hats and canes on the upstage wall should reconsider. It is a pedestrian touch in an evening of music that is anything but.

photos by Enci Box

Side by Side by Sondheim
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd in West L.A.
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2; Wed at 8 (Aug 8, 23); Thurs at 8 (Sept 6, 12)
ends on September 16, 2018
for tickets, call 310.477.2055 or visit Odyssey

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin Hopps July 23, 2018 at 6:19 pm

Wonderful review. And you sold me… just bought my tickets!

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Audience Person August 3, 2018 at 11:33 pm

The review isn’t fair to Sarah Busic. She didn’t have pitch problems and had a lovely vibrato. Definitely a well trained instrument. She started off “Losing my Mind” with a wonderful sweetness. The song was a high point of the show. By contrast, Chris Kerrigan was the weak vocal link of the 3 main character performers. He has a lot of charm, but he doesn’t have strong vocal chops. All were convincing and made for a fun evening.

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