Despite a last-minute thunderstorm that threatened to cancel the production, Raleigh Little Theatre‘s outdoor production of Side by Side by Sondheim was a terrific evening of, pardon the pun, a little night music. The performance, which is repeated May 15 and 16 at 8 p.m., is a bare-bones recreation of almost 30 numbers by one of the most complex and cerebral lyricists in American theater, but one that serves as an excellent sampling of both famous and obscure works.

The numbers are primarily performed by director Brent Wilson, Rose Martin and Martie Todd Sirois, employing minimal props and costumes. The songs flow smoothly, with little downtime between pieces, and the sound system was excellent, save for some microphone problems that threatened to derail Martin’s otherwise lovely rendition of “Send in the Clowns.”

What’s particularly tricky about presenting Stephen Sondheim numbers out of the context of their original plays isn’t just the tongue-twisting lyrics that come with numbers like “Getting Married” or “The Boy From….” It’s that Sondheim’s material is heavily influenced by the characters and situations. For example, “I Remember,” from the obscure TV musical Evening Primrose, is sung by a character raised in a department store who’s trying to recall things like trees and sky but can only refer to them in terms of what’s in the store. So sky is “blue as ink” while trees are “bare as coat racks” and “spread like broken umbrellas.” “Pretty Lady,” from Pacific Overtures, is a come-on from some sailors to a beautiful woman, but the context is that the sailors have recently arrived in Japan and mistake the uncomprehending woman for a geisha. Not exactly the kind of standards you hear performed on American Idol.

Therefore, it’s inevitable that some of the numbers lose something when taken from the original plays. The show works best as a concert, as opposed to a performance piece, but the numbers are often quite effective. Wilson shines on “I Remember” and the title number from the obscure Anyone Can Whistle, while Sirois does excellent, Ethel Merman-esque work on musical comedy numbers such as “If Momma Was Married” from Gypsy. The standout is Martin, whose range and presence is adept at everything from the brassy “I’m Still Here” to her touching, subdued take on “Clowns.”

Whether you’re a hardcore Sondheim buff or a neophyte, the performance’s reprise this weekend is well worth attending. Just hope the weather is better this time around

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