Friday, July 20, 2007

Sondheim with a side of ham

Leigh Barrett, Brendan McNab, and MaryAnn Zschau sing side by side.

I'm late to reviewing the New Rep's summer show, Side by Side by Sondheim, which I'm actually quite happy about - when I have to rain on a parade, I prefer that it's almost passed by. Which isn't to say Side by Side isn't quite a pageant; director Rick Lombardo has assembled a trio of Boston's best performers - Leigh Barrett, Brendan McNab, and Maryann Zschau - and set them loose (and unamplified!) on this quirky survey of the first half of the Sondheim canon, a field all but Elysian in its riches. And these A-listers always come through, when left alone with a song - the trouble is that director Lombardo keeps intruding with relentless, Z-grade schtick that sometimes blindsides their best efforts. Yes, the show is often a charmer, but the cruel truth is that it's not nearly as good as it should have been, given the talent involved.

And to be frank, while I'm not a true Sondheim queen - to paraphrase Lanford Wilson, I'm more a lady-in-waiting - even I have to wonder at some of the choices made by this revue's begetters (Cleo Laine and hubby John Dankworth). The role of the "interlocutor" - who fills us in on Sondheim's career between numbers - is always problematic, and the suavely droll Jonathan Colby, a "rising senior" at Emerson who hosts a show-tune-fest on WERS, can't transcend the part's quiz show vibe, particularly when ensconced behind a lectern to one side of the stage. Some of the numbers chosen (and not chosen) make you scratch your head, too. Why, for example, are "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" and "If Momma was Married" the only full numbers from Gypsy? And why "Pretty Lady" from Pacific Overtures instead of "Someone in a Tree"? I could also do without "You Must Meet My Wife," (A Little Night Music), "Barcelona" (Company), and a few more.

But then, of course, there are the obscurities which will always fascinate -such as "I Remember" from the lost TV musical Evening Primrose (which McNab voices evocatively), the early, sweetly ribald "Can That Boy Fox-trot," (nicely tricked out by Zschau and Barrett), and particularly the riotous novelty tune "The Boy From Tacarembo La Tumbe Del Fuego Santa Malipas Zacatecas La Junta Del Sol Y Cruz," featuring Barrett in hilarious form as a tourist in Coke-bottle glasses vainly pursuing McNab's sunbathing sexpot. These performances alone make the evening worthwhile - but they're equaled by sterling work from Barrett on "Another Hundred People" and Barrett and Zschau on "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love" from West Side Story. And McNab improbably does brilliant work on "Could I Leave You" (traditionally sung by a woman) and "Marry Me a Little" - in fact, it's nice to see him fancy-free after a series of downer roles in the likes of Parade; he's the frisky center of this show, light on his feet (neither Zschau nor Barrett is really a dancer) and up for anything.

Alas, even his considerable skill is no match for some of the lame antics he's required to bring off; steamroller schtick hobbles several numbers, and in "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" completely stops the show (only not in a good way). Director Lombardo seems to imagine that the opening number - "Comedy Tonight" - should set the tone for the whole revue, when nothing could be further from the truth. And the desire to "do something" with Sondheim's most famous tunes leads to odd outcomes - Zschau belts much of "Send in the Clowns" as if they might be waiting for their cue in the lobby, and while Barrett finds a compelling psychological drama in "Losing My Mind," the song has been set so low in her range that she winds up belting, too.

Oh, well. These lows are more than balanced by those highs, I suppose (and by Todd C. Gordon's and Steven Bergman's dueling pianos). The show's heart, and so much else, is in the right place, that it's a shame all that schtick wasn't someplace else.

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