The disconnect between serious fans of Stephen Sondheim’s intricate theater songs and folks who like their Broadway show tunes simpler and more hummable bubbles through the audience at the Miami Beach Stage Door Theatre, where the popular revue Side by Side by Sondheim has just opened.
It’s clear that some theatergoers can’t wait to hear the songs from Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and more. Others are probably feeling more like the older gentleman at Sunday’s matinee — happy to be seeing a show, but wishing the music was by Irving Berlin (at least that’s what he said).
To each his own, but even traditionalists shouldn’t dismiss Sondheim out of hand. So many of the songs coming from the stage at the Byron Carlyle Theatre (where Stage Door performs) are clever, tuneful, ironic or downright gorgeous. And more often than not, the four-member cast — Priscilla Fernandez, Shane R. Tanner, Don Stansfield and Lynn Wilhite — performs them well.
Side by Side by Sondheim is a 1976 revue that clusters songs thematically, with short commentary between sections. Directed and choreographed by Kevin Black, with musical direction by Caryl Fantel, the Stage Door production relies on Tanner for most of the narrating duties, and that’s a good thing.
With his rich, robust voice and easy charm, Tanner becomes the show’s anchor and one of its strongest assets. The wistful I Remember from the made-for-TV musical Evening Primrose is a hauntingly beautiful solo. Tanner also delivers a biting Could I Leave You? (traditionally sung by a woman) from Follies and makes it his own.
Fernandez, who impressively handles the rapid-fire tour de force that is Getting Married Today from Company, is also a vocal standout. She’s stylistically malleable, as a revue performer must be, sexy as she sings I Never Do Any Thing Twice from the movie The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, defiant as she delivers I’m Still Here from Follies, full of rueful irony as she offers a contemplative Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music.
Stansfield and Tanner blend terrifically on Beautiful Girls, their robust salute to the beauties from Follies, and Stansfield gets to do a bit of gender-bending to become the third Andrews “sister” on You Could Drive a Person Crazy.
Wilhite, who is finishing her master’s degree at Florida Atlantic University, is making her professional debut in Side by Side by Sondheim. She gets to sing two standout Follies songs, the plucky Broadway Baby and the longing-filled Losing My Mind, but her acting skills don’t bring them to life with the panache her fellow performers bring to their solos. Occasionally, she wanders off pitch, but when the actors sing in pairs, trios or as a quartet, the voices are strong and harmonious.
Staged on simple platforms and steps, with posters from Sondheim shows hanging in the background, the production gets its visual variety from April Soroko’s costumes, particularly the women’s striking gowns and cocktail dresses. The singers are accompanied by a pair of hard-working pianists (on opening weekend, Mary Anne Morro and Christopher Kurtz, who was subbing for Fantel). Scattered line glitches and some evident awkwardness as the actors move around the set should disappear with repetition — and perhaps a little more rehearsal — as the show continues its run.
Stage Door’s Side by Side by Sondheim is neither elaborate nor flawless. But for devotees of that influential composer-lyricist, an artist who has created such eclectic and enduring work, it’s as much a holiday treat as A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker or (thank you, Irving Berlin) White Christmas.