The question is more wrenching than usual with Side by Side, because the fun factor is so large and the music so fine. Side by Side was conceived in 1978 as a Stephen Sondheim retrospective, and today it functions as a fun, funny, and fairly comprehensive overview of Sondheim´s early career. Lollipops from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Gypsy, A Little Night Music, Company, Anyone Can Whistle, Pacific Overtures, and West Side Story crowd little-known gems from The 7% Solution (about coke-addled Sherlock Holmes seeking help from Dr. Sigmund Freud) and Evening Primrose (a 1966 ABC special), along with songs from Forum and Company that never got into the finished scores. All numbers are handled by three singing actors and a singing pianist who intersperse the songs with some light analyses of Sondheim´s oeuvre. When it´s over, audiences shuffle out of the theater, telling one another how very talented and clever Sondheim is (or was).
Is it a good time? Yes. Will people who see this shtick feel cheated? Nope. Sondheim is a genius, and spending an evening with his work is damned pleasant. Actors Terrell Hardcastle and Cecilia Isis Torres are solid singers and magnetic presences, and actor Anna McNeely, after decades of working on Broadway, can make whole songs turn on a look or a hook. Pianist/singer Craig D. Ames is as amiable as you could want, and he´s got a lovely, elegant touch on his instrument that can make you forget you´re hearing a reduction.
At some point during the production, Ames refers to Sondheim´s songs as self-contained ¨playlets,¨ and Side by Side works best when this is true. Sondheim has always been a restless little critter, and he´s seldom content to deliver songs of mere ¨prettiness¨ or ¨cleverness.¨ You can hear his brain ratcheting into high gear when his songs set out to smash their own boundaries to develop fully rendered characters, moving with hearts and heads through particular sets of circumstances. Often, Sondheim will pit voice against voice, melody against melody, twisting his characters´ internal monologues into hypersyncopated polyphonies. When he sets out to do these things, Sondheim is sucked through some kind of musical event horizon beyond which words and melody become liquid, and it seems like a given line could go in any direction at any time. ¨The Little Things You Do Together,¨ a paean to the glories of married life that is funny and bassackwards enough to have been written by Randy Newman, is a good example of this. ¨Getting Married Today¨ is a better one. In it, Hardcastle sings about his deep and abiding love of his bride-to-be while the bride in question, Torres, freaks out at high speed, triple- and quadruple-rhyming her wedding-day angst at a pace that´d make any club full of motor-mouthed MCs blush with envy. While this is going on, Anna McNeely warbles faux-operatics above the noise, solemnly declaring the whole thing absurd. Watching this kind of organized chaos, audiences can switch attention from actor to actor, entering and exiting the competing melodies and conversations in all kinds of improbable places, finding delight and novelty wherever they look.
There is also delight to be found in Sondheim´s simpler moments -- aching little pieces of music like ¨Ladies Who Lunch¨ that develop character not by the heaping on of elements but by their stripping away. An aging female socialite, martini in hand, bitterly toasts the affectedness of other middle-aged socialites, ¨lounging in their caftans,¨ ¨planning a brunch,¨ heading ¨off to the gym,¨ ¨claiming they´re fat,¨ ¨looking grim,¨ and ¨choosing a hat.¨ Then she has a go at the ¨girls who play smart¨ and the ¨girls who play wife.¨ By the time she´s ready to ridicule ¨the girls who watch,¨ it´s obvious that the lion´s share of her contempt is for herself.
Sondheim´s never felt the urge to explain himself so bluntly in his music. With him, the communication of character is always more a matter of hints, the tracing of shapes, the inference of attitudes. Character development is left as much in hands of a song´s interpreter as it is found in the song´s libretto, though the words in those librettos inspire actors to levels of subtlety and expressiveness seldom possible elsewhere. In songs like ¨Ladies Who Lunch,¨ details and thoughts are boiled down by simple, clear-headed exposition until the bitter expression of a single sentiment can illuminate a character´s whole history and world.
With almost 30 songs, Side by Side by Sondheim allows for a lot of these moments -- moments that, taken as such, are totally beyond reproach. Still, the show is less theater than archaeology.
As it is packaged for the bloodless and dangerously wealthy geriatrics who get bused into downtown West Palm Beach for the shows at Palm Beach Dramaworks, Side by Side is a calculated exercise in nostalgia. These audiences saw Company and West Side Story when they were new, and whatever inherent artistic value those shows once possessed has now surely been eclipsed by their value as nostalgia, as reminders of a time when these audiences were bright and vibrant people with busy social lives and a real emotional investment in the goings-on of the theater world. Who knows how these folks would respond if their local pro theater company were to stun them with, say, the goatier permutations of Edward Albee or some late-period Mamet. But it´s damned depressing that nobody´s willing to find out.