Side by Side by Sondheim, performed at the Rhynsburger Theatre on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Missouri on Wednesday, October 6, is an assortment of classic musical stylings by the great composer Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim’s work can be found in stage and screen productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy and West Side Story. So obviously, this performance had a lot of history and fond memories for avid theatergoers within the production. The production was unique in that it did not carry a particular plot like most on-stage productions, but simply relied on songs with short breaks for narration to give background information on the songs and the productions they appeared in.
The production was written by Jim Miller and featured a cast of nine performers, five men and five women. Throughout the performance, each actor took the role of the various characters that were featured in each of Sonheim’s plays that were sampled. For example, in the number “Barcelona,” Zackary Reusler and Caitlin Reader are portrayed as husband and wife. Later on in the show, they are each playing completely different characters with completely different objectives. This show demands an open mind because it is impossible to associate one actor with a certain type of personality or character type.
Certain performers shined compared to others. The person that sticks out in my mind is the astounding voice and pitch of Paige Sommerer. Her performance in the second act of “Losing My Mind” seemed to freeze the entire theatre and demand the attention of everyone in attendance. I was simply blown away by her range and commitment to the tone of the song. She seemed to be the only performer with true vocal and stage presence training however. The other female performers were just average and almost all of the male performers were average to mediocre at best. Without a doubt, the outnumbered women side of the production shined compared to the men.
The songs seemed to change pace frequently. There were slow songs like “Buddy’s Blues,” then fast paced, goofy songs like “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” In my opinon, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” was the most audience pleasing and attention capturing number in the whole show. When I found myself nodding off to some of the slower and less captivating songs, this number truly served as a wake-up call just in time for the final few songs to cap off the production. Also, in “Getting Married Today,” which occurred in the first act, the unique, fast-paced singing of Fraisia Logan really impressed me. The way she was able to deliver her words at such a fast paced while still being understandable to the audience was nothing short of astonishing. Being that the women were far more talented than the men, songs like “Can that Boy Foxtrot,” “If Momma Was Married,” and “A Boy Like That,” were very enjoyable to listen to as well. The women really seemed to work well and feed off of each other on stage.
The set of the show, which featured a downtown, most likely New York City, skyline, was very eye opening and attention grabbing. The side of the stage was lined with a pattern that resembled piano keys that highlighted the musical nature of the show. I enjoyed the set, as well as the live band that was clearly in vision of the audience. It reminded me of the Big Band clubs that were so prominent during Stephen Sondheim’s peak era.
Overall, the show might have benefited from a plotline that somehow incorporated Sondheim’s songs in order for character development to be created. However, that was not the case. For what the director intended to do, it accomplished. I was introduced to Sondheim’s songs as well as his impact on the world of stage and screen. His impact was a great one, which is why he is still so respected today.