After a winsome opening number, the cast of Side by Side by Sondheim – a revue of songs by the American lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim, running until October 23rd at the Walmer Centre Theatre – breaks to offer an anecdote on Mr. Sondheim.
When he was fifteen-years old, Mr. Sondheim was invited by no less a composer than Oscar Hammerstein for a lesson in crafting a musical.
It seems the boy took careful heed.
Some of Mr. Sondheim’s better-known works include Into the Woods (recently revived at the Annex Theatre by StageWorks Toronto), Company, and Sweeny Todd. All of which won Mr. Sondheim Tony Awards – a mark of commercial success, if not artistic achievement.
Mr. Sondheim is also credited with writing the lyrics for the iconic West Side Story.
Side by Side by Sondheim is punctuated by anecdotes, like the one above. So, as it goes along, we also learn a little bit about Mr. Sondheim, who seems to have a wry and witty sense of humor, which also comes through in the songs.
The songs don’t share a whole lot in common with what I associate with musicals, which is light, bubbly romance.
In Side by Side by Sondheim, the content isn’t exactly dreamy. If anything, it’s laden with anxiety and startling candor. “Getting Married Today” for example, pivots around a woman’s doubts over the big day. “Another Hundred People” revolves around the claustrophobia of one character in a big city. “Barcelona” is a duet between a possibly love-struck man and an airline attendant that is going to leave him on the next flight.
In comparison to the sing-along stuff from Disney movies like The Lion King or The Little Mermaid, this material is a lot more adult. That is, painfully realistic. Disney doesn’t offer us characters that, when they get what they want, second-guess whether they want it; while Mr. Sondheim does.
The performances are stellar.
Side by Side by Sondheim is performed by Mikaela MacGillivray, Tammy Everett, John McNeill, and Brandyn McKinson. Accompanying them on pianos are David Atkinson and Jeanne Wyse, who is also credited as the music director.
Ms. MacGillvray’s knack for singing extremely fast in “Getting Married Today” and “The Boy From,” for example, captivated me. And Ms. Everett has a voice that might easily fill – and overflow – a space ten-times the size of the Walmer Centre Theatre.
The men in Side By Side by Sondheim don’t have the same leading presence as the women. But they’re enjoyable to watch, and I found the relative innocence and simplicity of the characters they play irresistibly charming.
Other credits belong to Sabrina Kolbegger for choreography – there’s intermittent dancing in the show, and generally, a lot of movement – and Ian Bender, whose lighting design includes a backdrop that nicely captures the musical theatre success of Mr. Sondheim.
– Side by Side by Sondheim runs until October 23rd at the Walmer Centre Theatre (188 Lowther Street. Go up Walmer from Bloor, Lowther is the first left, and the Walmer Center is the first big building). Tickets are $20
– The show runs Wednesday through Saturday, at 8. It closes after a 2pm performance on October 23rd