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Lark Theatre Reviews

Address: 549 Magnolia Ave.
Larkspur, CA 94939
Phone: 415-747-5828

The Magic of Sondheim at the Lark

By Judith M. Wilson

Side by Side by Sondheim is a tip of the hat to a Broadway great. Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) wrote 18 musicals in a career spanning more than half a century, and the lyrics of his songs are masterful in the way they help to tell a story and move it forward while transporting the audience to an imagined world. Side by Side by Sondheim is a compilation of many of his songs, but it’s a departure from the elaborate full-scale Broadway musicals Sondheim is so well known for. Instead, it’s a revue that’s a tribute to his work and focuses on the songs themselves, thus giving insight into his interests and highlighting his brilliance in pairing words and music to make them memorable.

The show, currently, running at the Lark Theatre in Larkspur, with choreography and stage direction by Carolyn Hutchinson and Dave Dobrusky as music director, puts the songs front and center. It’s in two acts, each with sections that either have a theme or feature songs from a particular Sondheim musical, with Follies and Company prominent. Daniel Johnson plays an engaging narrator, who explains which shows some of the songs are from, provides background on others and points out different musical styles. He adds that while most of the songs are familiar, audience members might find a few they don’t recognize. For instance, Comedy Tonight, from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, is this show’s opener, and the tune is likely to spring to mind immediately, but he reveals that it only found a place in the lineup two weeks into the show’s Broadway run, when it replaced the less well-known Love is in the Air, because it was a better fit. Following that bit of information, the cast of five accomplished players performs both songs, giving the audience a chance to see the contrast for themselves.

“Sondheim does have his favorite themes,” the narrator says, and marriage is a popular one, although Sondheim himself remained unmarried until late in life. Then the full cast launches into a series of songs about the married state. Among them is a lively and fun performance of You Must Meet My Wife, from A Little Night Music, by Maureen McVerry and Ken Brill. Also from A Little Night Music, Ashley Rae Little delivers a poignant Send in the Clowns, which Sondheim composed for actress Glynis Johns, who wasn’t a singer but performed his composition to acclaim, nonetheless. The song became a hit song beyond Broadway, after Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins recorded their own versions. The charming Simon Barrad gives yet another take on marriage in the role of a bachelor singing Marry Me a Little, from Company.

Can That Boy Fox-Trot, from Follies, by Little and Emma Roos is a funny and suggestive number, and McVerry has fun with The Boy from …, which Sondheim wrote under the pseudonym Esteban Del Nido and is a spoof of Bossa Nova and The Girl from Ipanema. As the show nears its end, the narrator reports that the cast has performed 28 songs and will do a medley with excerpts from 27 more. Among them are audience-pleasing favorites from West Side Story, and in the conclusion, the audience gets to sing along.

The volume and range of Sondheim’s work is remarkable. Beyond his own work, he collaborated with others and was a lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and did the lyrics for Gypsy, while Jule Styne did the music. Among his many awards, he received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2008 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

As a cinema, the Lark, a single-screen Art Deco theater that opened in 1936, has a small stage and isn’t outfitted for large live productions, but it hosts a variety of cultural events, such as live-streamed opera, and for Side by Side by Sondheim, it works just fine. For most of the show, an image of Sondheim appears on the screen, sitting at a piano alongside a scene of New York’s busy theatre district. The cast easily fills the small stage in front, and their polished performances paired with great content make a big impact, entrancing the audience and taking them on a journey through the world of Sondheim. It’s a satisfying 90 minutes of some of Sondheim’s best work, and the only downside is that audience members might be left wanting more.

Side by Side by Sondheim runs for 90 minutes with no intermission. See more and order tickets at http://larktheater.net/.