- From left: Timothy Guiles, William Pelton, Alexa Kartschoke, Tim Tavcar, Taryn Noelle and Kathleen Keenan
Like a pyramid of glasses filling up with Champagne, Stephen Sondheim's songs overflow with wordplay. Now at Lost Nation Theater, the musical revue Side by Side by Sondheim bubbles over with a cascade of more than two dozen of his songs. And that's not counting a dizzying finale medley stuffed with phrases from about 30 more songs that will have listeners chuckling at funny lyrical connections while trying to name that tune.
Sure, the stage has some nice columns and platforms, but the star of the set is a white grand piano, lacquered within an inch of its life. It shines, and musical director Timothy Guiles honors it and the music by playing in tuxedo tails. This show is show tunes, pure and simple.
In various degrees of evening wear, the cast of five features four longtime LNT favorites and a recent theater graduate who appeared in a previous LNT musical. Kathleen Keenan and Tim Tavcar, who codirected the show, perform with Taryn Noelle, William Pelton and relative newcomer Alexa Kartschoke. Each performer gets a few solos in which to shine, interspersed with full company numbers, duets and trios.
Keenan takes on three standout tunes and triumphs with each one. She makes "Send in the Clowns" extraordinarily expressive, a rich insight without the syrup that often coats this ballad. Performing the patter song "Getting Married Today," she and Guiles slow the tempo just enough to let the words shine and slightly reduce the song's immense degree of difficulty. Keenan's diction and breath control never falter, and she not only conveys the character's panic but sticks the comic landing.
Singing "I'm Still Here" from Follies, Keenan polishes the little jewels of the lyrics, holding a steady pace until she uncorks a walloping ending. When she punches a fist up to the sky, the gesture stands for surviving — exactly what theater itself is struggling to do as the pandemic eases.
Kartschoke's bright voice fills "Broadway Baby" with loping, vaudevillian drive. In "Losing My Mind," with no orchestra to raise the intensity, she plays the first verse as romantic and the second as romance shattered by obsession. Sondheim's neat trick is using the same words for each half; Kartschoke's is letting the story tear her apart.
In addition to singing, Noelle developed simple choreography to suit the abilities of each performer. Her use of gliding movement showcases the pleasure of performing itself, and she punctuates some songs with fun tableaux. On her solos, Noelle hits the rush and pressure of "Another Hundred People" from Company and the sweeping expectations of "Something's Coming" from West Side Story.
Pelton connects warmly with the audience and other performers, always moving with studied elegance. He lets himself get nicely lost in the reverie "I Remember."
Tavcar serves as narrator, introducing songs and their history, and joins the company for several numbers. He savors every devilish turn of his "Could I Leave You?" solo, dripping acid with medical precision, and taps his reservoir of showmanship with every head tilt in the ensemble pieces.
The revue was conceived in 1975, and though theaters can take some liberties with the song list, the musical carousel stops spinning before Sondheim's later hits, including Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods. Songs from Company and Follies are well represented, and this Sondheim museum includes exhibits of little-known works. From the TV obscurity "Evening Primrose" comes "I Remember," a fine tune sung by Pelton, but it may be safe to say that your curiosity about the unsuccessful musical Pacific Overtures is satisfied before "Pretty Lady" lumbers to completion.
Most of the music is by Sondheim, but the revue represents his early career with one song from his 1957 collaboration with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story and two from the 1959 Gypsy, with music by Jule Styne. Those two shows put Sondheim on Broadway's map as a lyricist. He got his first chance to compose both music and lyrics with 1962's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Appropriately, the revue uses that show's "Comedy Tonight" as a repeating motif.
This slice of Sondheim emphasizes tunes that can stand alone and work without full orchestration. It's long on easy rhythmic gimmicks and short on lush, complex layers. The production is essentially straight singing, Noelle's charming but simple choreography aside. Guiles is a fine pianist, but the lack of other instrumentation gives the songs a sameness. In the end, the lyrics shine brighter than the music.
And they should — Sondheim was arguably the wittiest lyricist in musical theater. No one in this production has the pipes to rattle the roof, but they all convey Sondheim's fascination with a character's emotional circumstances, rendered with cleverness to delight the audience and passion to drive the story.
Making rhymes may seem like a low art, but Sondheim uses it to reveal hidden connections, contrasting disparate images that just happen to rhyme. Take the wry ode to marriage "The Little Things You Do Together," performed by the full company, which marches nicely through "the concerts you enjoy together, neighbors you annoy together, children you destroy together" to paint the highs and lows. The tune is forgettably bouncy, but the words give the performers all the ammo they need to zing each other.
The experienced cast brings rich understanding to shaping the musical presentation. If they don't kick especially high in the side-by-side finale chorus line, they do know how to find the sweet and sour in Sondheim's tunes. Theater companies have flooded the market with Sondheim since his death at 91 in 2021, but we won't soon tire of his genius.