The Little Theatre of Virginia Beach’s production of Side by Side, directed by Karen Buchheim, is an enjoyable revue of the work of Stephen Sondheim.
The show involves a cast of seven performers singing dozens of songs that Sondheim had some role in writing (prior to 1976, when the show was first performed). It includes pieces from well-known shows like Gypsy, West Side Story, and Company, as well as a few more obscure ones, like Evening Primrose. Interspersed between songs are stories about Mr. Sondheim’s life and career, which add some nice context.
The first thing I noticed when the curtain opened was the set (designed by Karen Buchheim and Robert Shirley). Being a revue, the Side by Side requires little in the way of a set; but even so, the mid-century upscale nightclub feel of the stage nicely complements the show. Everything is black and white with a hint of gray, leaving color to the lights and costumes. Center stage is a bar with a façade of the New York skyline in gray “granite” on a white background. Stairs on either side, painted in an alternating black and white focus the audience’s gaze downstage (where most of the action takes place), while also allowing the performers to use the bar as a playing space. Just upstage of the bar sit two pianists, Nancy Whitfield and Martha Berryman, and across the back of the stage are marbleized columns with ornate Corinthian toppers and white gossamer draped between them. The whole scene evokes the classic movie musicals of the first half of the 20th century, and sets an elegant tone.
The costumes designed by Karen Buccheim and Kay Burcher fit perfectly with the set and the tone of the show. For the first act, the three men wear tuxes and the four women wear different colored dresses with identical cuts and silver heels. In act two, the men change into tailcoats with white ties and waistcoats, while the women change into more formal sequin-topped evening gowns in different colors, but again with the same cut. The only criticism I have of the costumes (and it’s a minor one) is that in act one, only one of the actors’ jackets was unbuttoned, revealing a cummerbund whose left third was white. Had the other male actors shown the same cummerbund, I would have thought nothing of it, and they may indeed have had matching pieces. But with their jackets buttoned the lone two-tone cummerbund was a bit distracting in an otherwise uniform costume scheme.
The light design by Alex Mason is simple and effective. A cyclorama upstage lit with various colors at different times allows efficient setting of moods with minimal effort, and the lighting of the rest of the stage complements those moods nicely. The black and white set design makes these mood shifts seem more striking than they might otherwise. There are some moments, however, when actors could be better lit, mostly when they are near the wings of the stage. This may be the result of miscommunication between director and lighting designer, or just an issue of actors having trouble finding their light. This only happens a handful of times though, and doesn’t really detract from the show much at all.
Across the board vocal performances are strong in a testament to the music direction by Nancy Whitfield. In a show with 30 songs and such strong performances, it is difficult to pick standouts, but I would be remiss if I failed to mention one of the more difficult pieces in the show (and in Sondheim’s entire catalog): “Not Getting Married Today” from Company. The song features three performers (Kathy Hinson, Regina Rossi, and Robert Shirley). Shirley plays the doting husband to Hinson’s cold-footed bride, who begs her guests to leave in rapid-fire verse, with Rossi providing operatic interludes describing the bride’s state of mind. The whole scene is played to great comedic effect. Also worth mentioning is Rossi’s performance of “The Boy From…” from The Mad Show. Not only does she exhibit a strong command of the music, but her acting chops are also on display as she dives into her character, evoking some of the show’s biggest laughs. Of course, none of these performances would work without the flawless accompaniment of the two apparently very talented pianists (Whitfield and Berryman).
A major challenge with musical revues is that the lack of a story and cohesive characters makes it difficult to develop chemistry between the actors. While individual performances were generally good, the acting does at times succumb to this trap, though there are a few notable exceptions. In particular, the duet “A Boy Like That” brings a hint of drama and passion to the show as Hinson and Kathryn Davis effectively portray this scene from West Side Story, their voices and characters blending beautifully.
The only real disappointment in the show is the choreography by Karen Buccheim. Given the set, costumes, and source material, Side by Side would have been a perfect opportunity to show audiences some moves inspired by Gene Kelly, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. There is a little bit of that style, but the choreography falls short of really embracing it. It was probably a conscious choice to focus more on the vocals than the dance, and that is understandable given the difficulty of Sondheim’s music. The choreography works fine, I would just personally like to have seen a different choice.
Overall, beautiful design and strong performances definitely make this show worth seeing.
Side by Side plays through December 10th at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 and Sundays at 2:30. You can purchase tickets here.