Fab four: Dana Sovocool, Elizabeth Abriola Fern, Cathleen O’Brien and Shawn Forster in Salt City Center’s Side By Side By Sondheim, now at Jazz Central.
The company and cast are what make the
difference, of course. Joe and Pat Lotito’s venerable Salt City Center
has suffered more than its share of the blues. The loss of the former
synagogue-playhouse on South Crouse Avenue in 2005 lingers like a death
in the family. An announced plan for a production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers
was quashed when another company beat it to the market. Earlier this
month the Cultural Resources Council whacked Salt City’s grant. This
musical, currently being performed at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington
St., and Shirley Fenner Reidenbaugh’s one-woman show Widow’s Pique, set for January, are the only items on this season’s calendar.
Bloodied but unbowed, however, music
director Pat Lotito is still at the keyboard, fully in command of the
composer’s complex harmonies and capricious key changes. It’s a
bare-bones production, with virtually no set and no costume changes for
the women. What drives this show is the only commodity the company has
in abundance: love.
All of the four singers are
well-regarded local talents with longstanding ties to Salt City Center.
Two are multiple Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) award winners, and
all have taken leading roles at some time or another. Soprano Cathleen
O’Brien, with a voice trained for Verdi and Puccini, delivers her
maximum power during her half of a duet from West Side Story,
for which Sondheim provided the lyrics. In contrast, Elizabeth Abriola
Fern snags the best-known of all the composer’s songs, “Send in the
Clowns,” with all those short syllables (“Isn’t it rich?”), written for
the non-singing Glynis Johns in A Little Night Music.
Among the men, Dana Sovocool’s power,
range and expressiveness have made his voice the most admired on local
boards in recent years. Surely the nearly unknown number “I Remember”
from Evening Primrose, a television production (1966), was
included because it provides a showcase for him. One of the most
reliable comic players around, Shawn Forster, puts a welcome change of
pace in the bouncy “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods.
The original Side By Side opened
in London in 1976, and because Sondheim, born 1930, is still a working
composer, the show has evolved over the years. It’s quite possible to
have seen another production around town with the same title and have
heard substantially different songs. According to the Internet Broadway
Database (www.ibdb.com), what Salt City gives us is substantially the
same as the original, beginning with the high-stepping “Comedy Tonight”
from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and ending with “Side By Side” from Company. This
Salt City version is a bit shorter, 24 numbers against 31 in the
original. And some of the best songs did not exist in 1976, like Fern’s
torchy “Sooner or Later,” from the movie Dick Tracy (1990), written for Madonna, or Sovocool’s tender “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd.
Backstage, two other Salt City loyalists are calling the shots, director Bob Brown and choreographer Shannon Tompkins. Sondheim
is not usually thought of as a dance show, but Tompkins adds stylish
steps in ensemble numbers, which are sometimes staged to be amusingly
maladroit, as when Sovocool is purposely out of step. Brown’s touch
adds drama to several duets, as many Sondheim songs are
mini-narratives, what the composer calls “diegetic.” O’Brien, Brown’s
frequent co-star, is an especially empathic listener.
In the end, however, Side By Side By Sondheim is a tribute to the major
figure of the American musical theater of the last generation. If his
shows are done rarely on local boards, his legacy offers much to be
savored. Fern’s “Not Getting Married Today,” Forster’s “Losing My
Mind,” Sovocool’s “Being Alive” and O’Brien’s “Not a Day Goes By”
remind us that, unlike Jacques Brel, composer Stephen Sondheim is alive
and well and living in Syracuse.
This production runs through Nov. 9. See Times Table for information.