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THEATER REVIEW 'SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM' : Wordy Music : While aficionados might find much to enjoy, in a perfect world the show would have been mounted in a more intimate venue.

August 22, 1991|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After "Guys and Dolls" was pulled from production by the Music Theater of Ventura County after just one day of rehearsal, the show was hastily replaced by the currently running revue "Side by Side by Sondheim."

The group's explanation, reiterated to Friday's Oxnard Civic Auditorium opening-night audience by company official James A. Blackman III, was that the licensers of "Guys and Dolls" had rescinded previously granted rights in the face of an impending touring production.

Cynical outsiders might: 1. look at the replacement of a relatively large, splashy musical by a revue with a cast of six, including the two-man "band"; 2. note the ratio of filled versus available seats in the Oxnard Civic Auditorium, and 3. draw their own conclusions. But they'd be wrong--Music Theater International of New York confirmed that they requested a termination of the Oxnard production. A national tour is scheduled to reach Southern California this fall, on the way to Broadway.

While Sondheim fans might find much to enjoy about this production, in a perfect world "Side by Side by Sondheim" would have been mounted in a more intimate venue, perhaps as an adjunct to the bigger musicals presented by the company. But whatever prompted this last-minute substitution, it's a poor trick to play on Music Theater of Ventura County season ticket-holders, for it's difficult to imagine two other shows with so little in common.

While Sondheim and "Guys and Dolls" composer and lyricist Frank Loesser are both highly respected, they draw from different traditions. Loesser was a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith in the tradition of Irving Berlin. Sondheim--revered by his fans as an artist and innovator--is more musically and lyrically sophisticated. Unfortunately, as a pop songwriter, he is something of a dud.

Loesser gave us "Baby, It's Cold Outside," "Two Sleepy People," "Once in Love With Amy," "On a Slow Boat to China," "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" and other pop standards of the '40s and '50s.

Sondheim's biggest hits came from his lyrics to "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," on which he shared writing credit with Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne, respectively. Of the numbers Sondheim's written both words and music to, the only one that could be considered a popular hit is "Send in the Clowns," from "A Little Night Music."

Which is to say that a lot of those who subscribed to the Music Theater of Ventura County's rather lowbrow season (which also included "South Pacific" and "Cabaret") stand a chance of finding Sondheim's works entirely too cerebral, not to mention arch and pretentious, for their tastes.

This opinion would be diluted by neither "Side by Side by Sondheim" itself nor the current production.

The show includes maybe 40 songs, sung by two women and one man with editorial commentary by a "narrator." It almost studiously avoids Sondheim's best-known material, and much of that is concentrated in the second act, in a medley that wraps everything up near the end of the evening.

What was left of the opening-night audience after intermission gave "Send in the Clowns" a huge ovation--not just because of Carol Swarbrick's sensitive interpretation, but because at last this was a number they'd heard before.

Also in the second act is what may be the show's funniest piece, a parody of "The Girl From Ipanema" written with composer Mary Rodgers for a 1966 review based on ideas from Mad magazine.

Comically pompous snobbery is a British tradition; one need look no further than various John Cleese characters for confirmation. In the original production, the narrator was the show's compiler, Ned Sherrin, a former barrister and a creator of the satirical English TV show of the '70s "That Was the Week That Was."

Here, with a few local and timely references inserted into Sherrin's script, the narrator, David Senstrom, comes off as patronizing the Ventura County audience. It's an attitude that this company, an offshoot of the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera, should be especially careful to avoid.

The show's a family affair; co-stars Senstrom and Swarbrick are married. An alumnus of the Broadway production of "Side by Side," director Swarbrick should certainly know how to put it on, and she's done a commendable job, especially in light of the brief time she was given to get it together.

She assigned herself the more mature or comic material, Ann Winowski takes the ingenue roles and the big-voiced Michael G. Hawkins gets the songs written for men--a relatively thankless task considering that most of Sondheim's best material was written for women.

Two obvious exceptions, "Tonight" and "Maria" from "West Side Story," are given short or no shrift here. The main song featured from that show is the gorgeous, operatic "I Have a Love," sung by the women.

Instrumental accompaniment is provided by pianists Irv Kimber and Christopher Stockey, who do a terrific job and work harder than anybody else in the company.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Side by Side by Sondheim" concludes this weekend at Oxnard Civic Auditorium, 800 Hobson Way. Shows are at 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and a Sunday evening performance at 7. Tickets range from $11.50 to $27.50, with discounts available for groups, seniors, students and active military. For further information, reservations or to charge tickets, call (800) 366-6064.

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