"Side by Side by Sondheim" at Newport Theatre Arts Center puts the accent on glamour and silky-smooth vocal work, but for all its virtues, this revue of Stephen Sondheim songs lacks the theatrical gusto that makes Sondheim's work so extraordinary.
Director Beth Hansen's cast delivers the songs in a manner that is fun to watch and a pleasure to listen to, but too often the subtleties in the music are crushed; this is a production that shouts when it should whisper. The narration is delivered in a forced manner, and this uncomfortable self-consciousness frequently is evident in the music. Further, there are several gratuitous attempts to act out Sondheim's themes and to add inappropriately clownish touches, and this business only serves to clutter the composer's delicately defined constructions. Hansen's staging works best when it's kept simple, when it allows the melodies and the lyrics to speak for themselves. Eddie Keener's graceful choreography is mostly on target, smoothly--and often amusingly--complementing the songs without calling attention to itself.
Of the five-member cast, Cindy Takeda is the most natural and appealing. Her rendition of "Broadway Baby" is especially winsome. Joseph Jones is very much at home with the Sondheim style, and he nicely interprets the sensitivity of the lyrics. The duet by Takeda and Jones, "We're Gonna Be All Right," in which a couple conclude that their marriage seems fine considering the problems that their friends are having, does full justice to the humor as well as to the biting subtext of the song. Liz Jones displays an adroit, subtle sense of comedy, as evidenced in the wickedly funny "The Boy From. . . ." Jones also has a deft hand with the more poignant material, giving an intelligent rendition of "Send in the Clowns." Less successful are Michael Wren, whose frenetic approach is at odds with Sondheim's style, and Kristine Sudderth, who maintains a chilly, unapproachable quality that verges on smugness. All perform with assurance and energy, but the product of their effort is so smooth as to be almost aloof--the show is enjoyable, but the power of Sondheim's music is sacrificed in the process.
Gil Morales' set, Bob Cady's lighting and Mary Morales' costumes give the show a pleasingly romantic look.
"Side by Side by Sondheim" continues through June 14 at Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive in Newport Beach. For information, call (714) 631-0288.