Stephen Sondheim musicals are often staged in San Diego, and fortunately for us this year also contained two revues. In February, Vista’s Moonlight Stage Productions presented Sondheim on Sondheim, which incorporated live musical numbers with archive footage of the beloved songwriter. The North Coast Repertory Theatre is currently producing a revival of a 1976 revue that Ned Sherrin originally conceived, Side by Side by Sondheim as a conclusion to their 33rd season.
Throughout the evening, a narrator (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper) discusses stories about Sondheim’s career, his most famous dramas and reoccurring themes involving dysfunctional relationships and marriage. The songs are performed by Mongiardo-Cooper, Randall Dodge, Angelina Reaux and Rena Strober.
Since the numbers were written by 1976, there are no melodies from the more recent Sondheim works including Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods. If certain later Sondheim tunes are missed, the evening benefits from a narrow focus as opposed to covering every period of his lengthy and varied career.
Several Sondheim classic show tunes are sung by the cast. Strober pulls off the difficult neurotic patter in “Getting Married Today” with absurdly fast delivery and agitated humor. She can be brassy when belting “Broadway Baby” as well as elegant during a duet with Reaux, “A Boy Like That.”
Dodge is at his funniest acting opposite the actresses. He captures Sondheim’s bitter wit, discussing “The Little Things You Do Together” with Strober, and his moves from choreographer, Susan Jordan-DeLeon, during “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” will not be
Two of Sondheim’s most recognized solos, “Send in the Clowns” and “I’m Still Here” are given emotionally grand turns from Reaux. She performs with tragic melancholy during the former, but fashions the latter into a triumphant victory speech.
As the master of ceremonies, Mongiardo-Cooper does not get to sing as often, although he does showcase a commanding tenor voice with “Beautiful Girls” and “Being Alive.” He keeps the mood upbeat with ironic observations and sharing information about projects that the most fervent Sondheim fans might not know.
His introductions to numbers from the obscure television movie, “Evening Primrose,” and the Mad Magazine inspired revue, The Mad Show, shine a light on fascinating works that are rarely discussed by theatre fans. The particulars that Mongiardo-Cooper recites might actually inspire some to learn more about Sondheim’s contributions.
North Coast Rep artistic director, David Ellenstein, gives the space a classy atmosphere. Nothing about his staging feels sloppy or simplistic.
The spare set from Marty Burnett provides the actors room to roam around and relax on stools when they are taking a break from singing. This also allows two accomplished pianists, Alby Potts (musical director) and Tom Abruzzo, to play in front of viewers. They blend in seamlessly making a well-matched team.
Matt Novotny’s lighting design makes the theatre feel like a symphony event. The background is reminiscent of the live action scenes from “Fantasia” with the often vivid and color-changing backdrop upon a large headshot of Sondheim.
Aaron Rumley’s projections use posters from highly regarded Sondheim shows such as Follies and A Little Night Music. Rumley’s craft reminds theatregoers how creative and iconic the artwork remains to this day.
The only issue on opening night was minor technical difficulties with Melanie Chen’s sound design, due to static noise on the microphones. However, this issue is beyond nitpicky and will likely not be a problem during the rest of the run.
Side by Side would not seem like the kind of project that would build to a grand conclusion, but the theatrical work actually does just that. The company ends with a “Conversation Piece” with snippets from Sondheim refrains throughout the first part of his life. Sherrin’s decision to conclude the evening with the number ends the celebration on a high and extremely satisfying note.
Ellenstein, the cast and crew honorably pay tribute to the genius that is Sondheim. Die-hard followers will find plenty to love, and the uninitiated are in for a magnificent treat.