If there’s one dramatist whose work gives lie to the British notion that Americans don’t do irony, it’s Stephen Sondheim. Open-hearted though many of his songs are, his lyrics tend to delineate dramatic situations with ironic detachment. The last thing they need is literalism, which is the besetting sin of Hannah Chissick’s misbegotten production of the 1976 compilation show “Side by Side by Sondheim.”
Chissick and choreographer Adam Cooper keep their three performers and narrator busy. Too busy. Instead of letting Sondheim’s carefully crafted word-settings speak for themselves, not a word goes by without Chissick and Cooper desperately underlining it.
Take “Getting Married Today.” Josie Walker, the show’s strongest performer, knocks out a splendidly clear version of the helter-skelter lyric about a suicidal bridal day. But singing “If you’re quick/For a kick/You could pick/Up a christening,” she executes a sudden kick on the word “kick” that lumpenly delineates the wrong meaning of the word.
Similarly, in “The Boy From…” where the singer (Walker again) puzzles over her love: “Why do his friends call him Lillian?” That he’s gay should come as a comic surprise. Not here, because at the top of the number, Alasdair Harvey sashays on to act out what the lyric delays saying. It’s a case of “show and tell.” Either would be fine — both is overkill.
Occasionally, the staging works. Having Walker sprawl herself across one of the pianos and then flirt with the front row for the madame’s memoir “I Never Do Anything Twice” yields dividends. But too often the flourishes distract from the overall intent of a song, particularly when there are so many lighting cues you start to wonder if this is a Robert Wilson show.
Harvey has a pleasing voice and does a nicely aggressive “How Could I Leave You,” but elsewhere he stretches vowels to suit the sound rather than using the music to convey drama. That’s forgivable when the lyric is of the moon/June/croon school, but close to a crime in Sondheim’s more complex world.
Abbie Osman’s bright soprano is depressingly featureless. Her best number, “Another Hundred People,” is done in by the staging. Because the two grand pianos are positioned so far apart on opposite edges of the unusually wide acting area, the song’s necessarily fast tempo leads the pianists to slip painfully out of synch.
Walker, as experienced an actor as she is a singer, delivers a knockout “I’m Still Here,” alive with bruised defiance. Suddenly, performer and production completely mesh. Sadly, it’s the penultimate number.
For the first two weeks only, the show’s narrator is Christopher Cazenove who, at the perf reviewed, exhibited a less than passing acquaintance with the script he carried throughout. He barely made eye contact with the audience and tripped over phrases aplenty.
The wit and potency of Sondheim’s material was never in doubt. The production is another matter.