People with tweens or teens in their lives these days may be getting a little tired by now of hearing them obsess over the songs from Disney’s Frozen – especially the leather-lunged, Oscar-winning showstopper “Let It Go.” Not to say that those songs are bad; but don’t you get a little nostalgic for the days when a show tune was supposed to be at least a little clever and sophisticated, and not just boffo? It wasn’t that long ago.
When it comes to clever, sophisticated lyric-making, the king of living Broadway tunesmiths is still Stephen Sondheim. His compositional technique may be flawless, but he never ties up a happy ending in a safe, neat little bow. Rather, odd harmonies, discords and minor keys, flippant or world-weary sentiments, acerbic ironies and heart-aching near-misses, tongue-tangling wordplay, alliteration and internal rhyme are the hallmarks of this master’s form. Sondheim’s songs generally prod you to think and feel more than they do to sing along – though there are exceptions.
The eight-time Tony-winner’s output has slowed in recent years, but by 1976 he had already amassed a strong and diverse enough repertoire to inspire the first of several revues. Though Side by Side by Sondheim stops short of such later works as Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, it packs a great deal of punch into an evening’s entertainment. It’s currently running at Half Moon Theatre in Poughkeepsie, with an excellent cast that includes two very talented Broadway veterans: Half Moon executive director Molly Renfroe Katz and Denise Summerford, co-director of Half Moon’s School of the Arts. Kenneth Kyle Martinez ably sings the male parts (and the odd female one), while David Simpatico – who’s also the set designer – fills the role of the Narrator with affable humor. Musical director Sarah Brett England provides beautiful accompaniment on the piano.
Nearly half of the songs in Side by Side by Sondheim come from either Company or Follies, surprisingly skimping on the composer’s biggest early hits. The revue starts with a vivid demonstration of why “Love Is in the Air” was dropped in out-of-town tryouts and replaced with the hastily written “Comedy Tonight” as the opening number of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but that’s all we hear from that show. West Side Story is represented only by the Anita/Maria medley “A Boy like That”/“I Have a Love,” while this production cuts one of the two songs from Gypsy (“You Gotta Have a Gimmick”), keeping only “If Momma Was Married.” Even Company’s biggest hit, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” gets left out of the revue.
But that’s okay, because the lineup that makes the cut is varied in tone and topnotch in quality. In fact, much of this evening’s fun resides in the discovery of songs from shows that flopped, one-off efforts or projects that never got off the ground. One fine example, sung solo by Renfroe Katz, is the wistful ballad “I Remember (Sky).” It comes from a made-for-TV musical called Evening Primrose that was otherwise quickly forgotten – possibly on account of its wacky plot premise, involving a group of odd people who secretly live in a department store and turn into mannequins if they divulge their existence to outsiders.
Renfroe Katz aces the regretful “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, and demonstrates a kinkier side with “I Never Do Anything Twice (The Madam’s Song),” written for the movie The Seven Percent Solution but mostly cut from the final edit. It’s a charming reminder of the truism that bawdy humor is funniest when couched in somewhat oblique language. Sondheim is very good at this sort of thing, which also surfaces in “Can That Boy Foxtrot,” which was cut from Follies, sung here by both women.
Although the whole cast in this production is very strong, the real find is Summerford, who packs a belter voice into a petite frame. She particularly excels at patter songs and comic numbers like “The Boy from (Tacarembo la Tumbe del Fuego Santa Malipas Zacatecas la Junta del Sol y Cruz),” a bossa nova parody that Sondheim wrote under a pseudonym to music by Mary Rodgers for Linda Lavin to sing in The Mad Show, inspired by Mad magazine, in 1966. But Summerford’s biggest moment of the evening is the Follies showstopper “I’m Still Here,” which deservedly brought the opening-night audience to its feet.
Martinez holds his own well against these two formidable ladies, especially in embodying the reluctant suitor in the various songs from Company; his “Marry Me a Little” balanced yearning and hesitancy in equal measure. But the most fun was had by all in the zanier ensemble pieces like “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle and “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Follies – the latter delivered at such a brisk pace that it would hardly sound out of place in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.
Michael Schiralli directs this most enjoyable evening of musical theatre, which runs through April 5 at Half Moon’s Black Box Theatre in the Oakwood Commons North Building on Route 9. Tucked away behind the Red Robin restaurant, the new 80-seat theatre space is intimate, acoustically fine, well-lit and comfortable, with utterly silent fans wafting the gentlest of breezes over the audience.
Discover it now with a performance of Half Moon Theatre’s very first musical production, Side by Side by Sondheim, beginning at 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 3; Fridays, March 28 and April 4; and Saturdays, March 29 and April 5. Sunday matinées on March 23 and 30 at 2 p.m. Admission cost $30 for evening performances and $25 for matinées. To purchase tickets, call (800) 838-3006 or visit https://www.halfmoontheatre.org.
Side by Side by Sondheim, Thursday, April 3, Friday/Saturday, March 28/29, April 4/5, 8 p.m., Sunday, March 23 & 30, 2 p.m., $30/$25, Half Moon Theatre’s Black Box Theatre, Oakwood Commons North Building, 2515 South Road, Poughkeepsie; (800) 838-3006, https://www.halfmoontheatre.org.