Stephen Sondheim’s music is famous for it’s whirlwind lyrics, warped rhythms and guts that sent the MU Theatre Department class tumbling. Side by Side by Sondheim is a musical review that shows off some of Sondheim’s most popular work. At the beginning of the show, Steven Buehler who was narrating the show said that we were in for more of a show than a play. Turns out most of the cast were more actors than singers, which is unfortunate for a musical review with no plot.
Upon entering the theatre, the New York skyline set with pink sky and key boards lined with lightbulbs along the proscenium arch brace the audience for a spectacle show one might see on a cruise ship. The best part about these types of shows is the belting power that singers will put behind these songs, especially for the finales of songs. Nothing says Sondheim music like a long ending note belted out straight from the gut, so big and loud that you imagine their face hurts from all the sound coming out of it. Unfortunately, this is exactly what this production was missing: the gusto.
The Narrator in a musical review typically is supposed to bring the charm, humor and talent that ties the entire show together. Previously mentioned Buehler was clumsy and fumbled over his lines that were supposed to provide grace and unity to the show. Nearly every time he sang, it had no power or heart behind it and as a result was usually flat. His disengaged performance only made the show more disconnected.
However, Buehler was not the only cast member not putting their all into the performance. The vast majority of the show’s 29 musical numbers were disappointing. Sondheim’s music is unique because it not only requires a high level of technical musicality with very difficult rhythms and chords but also demand very passionate performances of characters in order to successfully perform the piece. Most of the actors seemed overwhelmed by the difficulty of the music and forgot about the passion of the characters they were supposed to be portraying through song. There is nothing quite so disappointing as having an entire song building up to a dramatic end (complete with flashing lights) and the note dying out and going a little flat.
There were a few exceptions. Paige Sommerer, while a bit too strident in Another Hundred People, had a beautiful voice and performed each song with fierce intensity. Her performance of Losing My Mind was a highlight of the show, even with technical issues during her performance. Naomi LaFond consistently brought either humor or deep emotion to the songs she performed. While she did not have the most technical voice, she brought out the heart of the songs she performed. The performer that really shined in this production was Zackary Ruesler. He was one of the only performers that completely changed characters with every song he sang whether it was a man who just had a one night stand in the song Barcelona or a refined stripper in You Gotta Get a Gimmick. He also was the only performer that seemed totally at ease with the difficulty of Sondheim. He attacked every song and his comfort made it easy for the audience to enjoy every song he was a part of. He brought humor, heart and technique that the rest of the show was lacking.
In one of Sondheim’s most famous musicals Gypsy, the stage mother who is the main character is constantly pushing her daughters. Her most famous line is “Sing out, Lousie!” The cast of this production of Side by Side by Sondheim would have benefited from taking Rose’s advice.