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No Clowns Tonight 

by Michael Bowen


The scintillating parts may not add up to an organic whole -- it's more synthetic than that -- but oh, what parts! What sides the singers get to sing in Side by Side by Sondheim (at Interplayers through June 19).


Highlights are numerous. In Stephen Sondheim's most famous song, "Send in the Clowns," Jana Tyrell sells both the longing and the self-recrimination. And Tyrell is both enchanting and hilarious as the madam of a Vienna brothel in "I Never Do Anything Twice." Channeling Sally Bowles and the entire comic-decadent mood of Cabaret, she's willing to indulge her customers' every kinky whim -- but only once.


Tyrell and the other woman in this three-singer cast, Jazmyn Gorsline, took the Anita and Maria roles for a pair of duets from West Side Story. In a great example of dramatic tension, Anita disapproves and Maria is weak in the knees for Tony.


Many of the songs in Side by Side seem like miniature dramatic scenes in that Sondheim often pits idealists against pessimists, irony against optimism: There's built-in conflict. His songs consistently hover between love and doubt, fidelity and torment.


The highlight of the show is "Conversation Piece," the last number but one, in which both pianists and all three singers -- including baritone Wil Holm -- ring through any number of rhythmic changes in reprises of songs from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Gypsy, West Side Story, Company, Follies and A Little Night Music. Like a grand finale at a fireworks show, they sang snippets from songs we'd heard earlier in the evening and some that we hadn't, handing off some complicated harmonies seamlessly from singer to singer.


Particularly nice were the complex musical and emotional transitions from the ebullience of "Wherever we go..." (Gypsy) to the jaded weariness of "The Little Things You Do Together" (Company) to the romantic idealism of "Make of our hands one hand..." from West Side Story.


Director Nike Imoru -- announced on opening night as Interplayers' new artistic director -- has removed the narrator and nearly all the '70s chit-chat, preferring instead to take the three singers off their stools and move them around the stage. They handle their own narration, supplying just enough so we understand most songs' dramatic situations. (Because Side by Side premiered in 1977, we don't get bits of later Sondheim shows such as Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods.)


These are not soporific crooners in a smoky bar taking some ballads oh so slow. This is three snappy singers -- occasionally a tad short of snappiness -- darting about the stage, throwing the musical momentum from one to another in often startling transitions, from idealized romance to jaded dejection.


Kate Vander Wende's flowing, black-and-white set propels the action in Imoru's dynamic staging that's full of movement, literally merging the music with its surroundings.


Kendall Feeney must provide the most impassioned accompaniment of any onstage pianist in recent memory: head bobbing to accentuate the buttons at the end of songs, she knows how to vary the dynamics between belt-it-out songs and quiet, pleading ballads.


There are some missteps. The choice of fancy masks and a slow tempo for the opening number introduces an unnecessary element of mystery, as if the entire evening was going to be cryptic rather than festive. And "Comedy Tonight" seems feeble when performed by three singers, as opposed to two dozen plus Nathan Lane in Forum.


"If Momma Was Married," the duet from Gypsy, which is largely about longing for a more stable home life, is joked up too much by silly wigs and broad acting. Some numbers, especially several of those from Follies, seemed not only out of context but out of emotional synch with the surrounding songs.


Holm underplays the comic surprise at the end of "Barcelona" (about the end of a one-night-stand). And in contrast to the scenes that create a little drama, he doesn't create enough when he solos in "Marry Me a Little" and "Anyone Can Whistle."


He redeems himself, however, in the strippers' tune from Gypsy, "You Gotta Have a Gimmick": After Tyrell plays a trumpet (between her legs!) and Gorsline drapes herself with sparkling lights, Holm earned some deserved applause simply for being wiling to appear in public in a see-through butterfly costume.


Sondheim may occasionally delight in farce, but he also knows how to undercut a perky tune with lyrics about arguments, infidelity and divorce. Literally lassoed together as a married couple, Holm and Gorsline are both affectionate and exasperated in "The Little Things You Do Together" -- which, for this married couple at least, include such delights as "the concerts you enjoy together / The neighbors you annoy together / Children you destroy together."


For Sondheim, marriage ultimately brings more pleasures than disappointments, and Interplayers' current production follows suit. Nothing gets destroyed, after all, and even if some small touches are annoying, this is one Side by Side concert worth enjoying together.





Publication date: 06/03/04

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