Two months ago at the Smith Center in Las Vegas I attended an incredibly informative forum featuring acclaimed lyricist/composer Stephen Sondheim, who boldly awakened the complex possibilities of adult musical theater storytelling throughout the 1970s.
Questioned by moderator Michael Kerker of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), a very humble, surprisingly candid Sondheim reflected on his groundbreaking legacy with a wide range of anecdotes, particularly shedding light on supervising the original cast recording of “West Side Story” in Leonard Bernstein’s absence, coping with Jule Styne’s peculiar approach to rewrites during their “Gyspy” collaboration, and enduring a rocky relationship with Richard Rodgers during their creation of 1965’s “Do I Hear a Waltz?,” which he admittedly agreed to do entirely out of obligation to his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II. In fact, Sondheim submitted humorous yet derisive lyrics for the bouncy Act 2 duet “We’re Gonna Be All Right” that were scrapped purely based on the disapproval of Rodgers’ wife. According to Sondheim, his lyrics “hit too close to home.”
Thankfully, you can hear “We’re Gonna Be All Right” as originally intended in the musical revue “Side by Side by Sondheim,” a special presentation opening the Dayton Playhouse’s 2012-13 season. Created in London in 1976 and transferring to Broadway a year later receiving five Tony Award nominations including Best Musical, “Side by Side” consists of nearly 30 songs and encompasses nearly 20 years of Sondheim’s repertoire from his early, aforementioned collaborations (writing only lyrics) to his definitive works such as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music” and “Pacific Overtures.” “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Evening Primrose” and “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” three little known projects, are also included.
Director Brian Sharp, establishing a smooth fluidity, seamlessly expands, with assistance from musical director Ron Kindell, the original concept of three singers to six. Laura Bloomingdale, Carol Chatfield, Kathy Clark, Bonnie Dobbs, Shawn Hooks and David Moyer blend beautifully while embracing Sondheim’s tricky lyrical and rhythmic challenges with just a few stumbles along the way. The lyrically sublime Bloomingdale (supplying an absolutely lovely “I Remember” and a delectable “Ah, Paris”) and Clark (a back-to-back knockout with “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Send in the Clowns” in addition to “The Boy From”) are standouts, but Moyer’s heartfelt “Marry Me A Little,” Hooks’ personable “Could I Leave You?,” Chatfield’s heartbreaking “Losing My Mind,” and Dobbs’ operatic flourishes within the saucy “I Never Do Anything Twice” are certainly noteworthy.
However, in a startling move, Ned Sherrin’s original continuity/narration has been altered with references to Sondheim’s later works (such as “Into the Woods”) which have nothing to do with the revue’s framework. Saul Caplan is an enjoyably easygoing narrator, but his comments are oddly disjointing. Moreover, a bizarrely reprehensible moment arrives at the climax of Act 2. Dobbs delivers “I’m Still Here,” a powerful “Follies” anthem of survival pinpointing Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression among America’s social landscape, with new, contemporary lyrics referencing Botox, O.J. Simpson, George Bush and Barack Obama. Why the Playhouse would cheapen one of Sondheim’s most respected, beloved songs is a total mystery. It is simply one of the worst, most blatantly pointless artistic decisions the Playhouse has ever made.
Even so, considering the strengths of the vocalists and the fantastic piano accompaniment of Bryon Dobbs and Nancy Perrin, “Side by Side” remains a clear testament to Sondheim’s distinctive, alluring and timeless career.
“Side by Side by Sondheim” continues through Sept. 16 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 70 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $15-$17. For tickets or more information, call (937) 424-8477 or visit www.daytonplayhouse.com.