Review by Lori Schneider
ELLENVILLE, NY (October 22, 2014) – Talent, energy and more than a splash of fun mark Shadowland Theatre’s “Side by Side by Sondheim” which opened this past weekend in Ellenville. Director Michael LaFleur has assembled all of the elements necessary for a smash hit in a show jam-packed with Sondheim compositions, well-known and little-known – shows for which Sondheim wrote both lyrics and music or collaborated on as lyricist with other legendary composers. As the audience entered the auditorium on Saturday night, we were greeted by a set, strewn with items you would find in the workspace of a theatre – assorted set pieces, unimposing upright piano, free-standing doors and a stairway leading nowhere. A lit “ghost light” center stage reminds us that the theatre is fraught with superstitions. Any actor will tell you, you never say “Good Luck,” but instead, “Break a Leg” – so, too, is there always a single light left burning onstage in the theatre! But the Company (pun intended) of “Side by Side by Sondheim” doesn’t need luck – as the marquee outside the theatre boasts, the show is “a musical delight!”
While the audience is still involved in pre-show chit-chat, a “stage hand” walks onto the stage for last minute preparations, including unplugging and removing the “ghost light” and communicating with the lighting booth. It’s soon apparent that the show has already begun. The “stage hand” is, in fact, Narrator Patrick John Kiernan. Now, if by Narrator, you were to assume he’s going read from a lectern what song is next and which show it’s from, you’d be mistaken. Kiernan is an integral part of the progression of the show, interacting with the other performers and peppering a dazzling array of songs with interesting stories and history – “Oh, to be a fly on the wall of a 15 year old Stephen Sondheim trying to pitch an idea to neighbor, Oscar Hammerstein and receiving a Master’s class on Musical Theatre!”
LaFleur brings out the best in his actors and unearths the emotion of each song/scene. The cohesive, compact troupe of actor/singers complement each other beautifully. They work seamlessly with each other and with Accompanist Jordan Richardson, who is onstage the entire time and delivers effortless, impressive interpretation of the driving, energetic numbers and haunting ballads. The precision of the singers is a tribute not only to their individual talents, but to Richardson as Musical Director.
The opening number, “Comedy Tonight” (Forum) is followed by the less familiar original opener of “Forum” (“Love is in the Air”). Humor abounds as the players play so well together. Kiernan beseeches the gods of the theatre to look favorably upon the evening – “Those who look down on actors (and who doesn’t?!), bless our little company and smile on us.” And do the theatre gods ever comply!
Danielle Erin Rhodes is equally at home with quirky comedy and breathtaking ballads. Her facial contortions and expressive eyes are fueled by the rapid-fire lyrics as the frantic Amy in “Getting Married Today” (Company) and she lingers on the shores of double entendre with “I Never Do Anything Twice” from the film “The Seven Percent Solution.” Her “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music) is simply gorgeous. For me, it has always been a song that’s been “done to death,” but Rhodes breathes fresh life into it with a delivery full of feeling. From a misty-eyed ending of this tender song, Rhodes takes a full 180 degree turn to the comic, “The Boy From…” (The Mad Show), complete with funky sunglasses, umbrella drink and accent. An Alto with incredible range and power, she can be soft and sweet or belt with the best of them. Her Mazeppa in “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” (Gypsy) and Anita in “A Boy Like That” (West Side Story) were also standouts.
Lesley McKinnell has an amazing range of her own. Her clear, pure Soprano is perfect as the Choir Girl in “Getting Married Today” (Company) and as Maria in “A Boy Like That” and “I Have A Love” (West Side Story), but she can growl and hit bottom notes as well with her rendition of “Broadway Baby” (Follies) which starts out restrained and builds to a bawdy belt as she lets loose and struts her stuff. Her plaintive, “Losing My Mind” (Follies) was captivating. Bathed in a pool of light, her eyes glistened, conveying the feeling of the song. Her deadpan delivery and nasal, knowing “Mmmm hmmm” absolutely made the duet, “The Little Things You Do Together” (Company). McKinnell’s Miss Electra in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” (Gypsy) had some technical difficulties, in that her “electrifying” costume seemed to be on the blink, but the no-show lights never caused her to miss a beat and her subtle bumps and grinds were a hilarious contrast to Mazeppa’s brash moves. Both McKinnell and Rhodes rise to the fun of Sondheim’s playfulness with language with “Can That Boy Foxtrot” (cut from Follies) – lending new meaning to “the F word” as the ladies sing the praises of a grocery clerk with few redeeming qualities, except his ability to F….oxtrot…
Loren Christopher brings a rich baritone to round out the trio. With feeling and ease, he performs the little-known, but gorgeous ballad, “I Remember” (Evening Primrose). His powerful and compelling “Being Alive” (Company) is truly his own. Christopher plays wistful well – his eyes and body language are riveting in “Anyone Can Whistle,” although a couple of the words of the softer lyrics of this number were lost to my ears. “Buddy’s Blues” (Follies) shows a more rousing side, and in “Could I Leave You?” (usually sung by a female character), he brings an interesting twist and commanding presence. Loren finds himself the object of a rivalry, best seen in the phenomenal “Conversation Piece” – a tapestry of tidbits from just about every Sondheim show as Danielle and Lesley vie for his attention with mounting frustration. Particularly noteworthy is his ability to leap in as a third “woman” in the numbers “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” (Gypsy) where he sports falsies and tassels, which he spins like a pro, and “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” (Company) which the Narrator leads into by describing the Andrews Sisters-style harmonies – “Imagine a trio…all three, Bette Midler.” He calls upon the girls and then Christopher, who answers, “Bette Midler, huh?” and jumps flawlessly into a show-stopping number with the ladies.
During the final numbers of the show, even the previously non-singing Narrator Patrick John Kiernan gets to sing and dance, and Accompanist/Musical Director, Jordan Richardson has his moment in the spotlight, with a cheeky grin, inserting his own personality while briefly away from behind the keyboard.
Director LaFleur does double duty as Choreographer and some of the more notable choreographed numbers are “Comedy Tonight,” “Buddy’s Blues,” “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” and the closing number, “Side by Side by Side” (Company), although the more subtle choreography in other numbers works in its own right. Scenic Designer, Eli Reid creates a realistic theatre scene. The pieces are functional, too – even down to the bass drum with which Kiernan provides the punctuation for the bumps and grinds in “Gimmick” and a clever shelving unit which tips on its side to transform into the bed used for “Barcelona” (Company). Lighting Design by Matt Miller adds to the overall production. Smooth lighting transitions are their own harmonies to the mood of each number. Costume Design by Holly Lewis Budd was simple, yet effective, basic black with costume pieces added or removed. “Gimmick” sees the most in the way of costumes, with enough oomph (and in the transforming of Loren Christopher into Miss Tessie Tura, simply perfect!). It’s said that Sound Design is doing its job if it’s not noticed. Jeff Knapp does his job well, as the balance of singers, spoken dialogue and piano never seems to have a hitch. In a cast with such strong voices, and through songs with counterpoint that no one writes like Sondheim, no one element ever overshadows the other.
“Break a Leg” to the Cast and Crew of “Side by Side by Sondheim” as it continues its run through November 2. This delightful production brings Shadowland Theatre’s 30th Season to a close, but you still have a chance to see for yourself why this show is getting standing ovations. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 pm and Sunday afternoons at 2:00 pm. In a word, “Go!”
Call the Shadowland box office at 845-647-5511 or visit www.shadowlandtheatre.org.