Side by Side by Sondheim started life as a very simple idea, a showcase for the musical talents of Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricists of musicals such as Gypsy, Into the Woods, A Little Night Music and Sweeny Todd.
This new revival at the Venue, a small subterranean theatre in Leicester Square, has stayed close to the original, not adding any new numbers, despite the fact that many of Sondheim’s more famous works have appeared since.
Side by Side, not only showcases Sondheim’s work, but also acts as the perfect platform for the three performers involved. With no particular theme and no plot, it is more in keeping with a cabaret act than anything else; two women and one man work their way through a number of Sondheim’s songs, while a narrator explains some of the ideas behind these songs and some of the creative choices that were made in their writing.
What becomes quickly clear is Sondheim’s genius for creating lyrics which are both emotionally and intellectually challenging. Many of these appear incredibly difficult to sing, but when performed with enough heart, they can catch the audience by the throat. You have got to be impressed by anyone who can work the line: “the boy from Tacarembo la Tumbe del Fuego Santa Malipas Zatatecas la Junta del Sol Y Cruz” in to a song, (that one comes from his 1970 musical Company).
With such a wide variety of songs to cover it is important that the three singers all bring something different to the night and yet somehow compliment one another. It’s fortunate then that Hannah Chissick’s production has assembled a near perfect trio. Though initially it seems an unequal matching, these concerns soon prove to be completely unfounded. At first Alistair Harvey and Josie Walker look set to outshine relative newcomer Abbie Osmon; she has much less musical theatre experience, but actually hers is perhaps the triumph of the night her rendition of Broadway Baby brought something new to a familiar number and nearly brought the house down.
However, both Harvey and Walker also have their moments to shine, and both seem completely at ease on the stage, whether hamming it up or delivering high emotional drama. Harvey has a beautiful voice and it shines through on some of the less well known numbers including Marry me a Little and Could I Leave You, both of which highlight a man’s distrust of, and ultimate disappointment with, love.
Josie Walker is perhaps the most versatile of the three performers, and seems to be having the most fun on stage; she is hysterically funny in Getting Married Today and The Boy from both of which require her to play the clown, but then she takes your breath away with songs such as Send in the Clowns and I’m Still Here.
The role of the narrator is going to be undertaken by four guest performers, each of which, I would imagine, will bring a different energy and atmosphere to the evening. Christopher Cazenove was compere on opening night and he brought the right touch of relaxed charm to the piece.
This is a fine celebration of the work of Stephen Sondheim, though if you don’t like what he does, this is unlikely to change your mind. However, long-time fans will be more than happy and intrigued newcomers will find it a perfect introduction to his music.