The country that launched “Side by Side by Sondheim” in 1975 does it no favors two decades later, and if its namesake weren’t such an English icon, the revue’s lamentably directed and designed current revival would barely be worth mentioning. Very much worth a mention is British comedienne Dawn French, who takes creator Ned Sherrin’s original assignment of narrator to new and dizzy heights.
French (sadly, already replaced in a rotating roster of narrators that will include Sheridan Morley and Labour politician and newspaper columnist Roy Hattersley) isn’t widely known in the U.S., but she possesses a sass, bite and cheerful vulgarity that are, well, very Broadway. As for the rest of director Matthew Francis’ cast, don’t send in the clowns; they’re already there.
French would make an inspired Pseudolus if Jerry Zaks’ distaff “Forum” ever crosses the Atlantic. “I bet when you’re a jet you’re a jet,” she purrs at performer David Malek, turning her overweight sex- and song-obsessed commentator into a heavyweight diva. “I just wondered if you noticed anything missing in the opening number,” French asks. “Like me.”
Indeed, her absences are alltoo noticeable, since they place the burden of the show on the frail shoulders of artists among whom only musical director Michael Haslam, the invaluable first pianist, keeps pace with the visiting star. An alumna of the Donmar Warehouse “Company,” Liza Sadovy misses as many notes as she hits, and she is, frankly, painful at the start of “You Gotta Have a Gimmick ,” a number that here substitutes coy English play-acting for Broadway bump-and-grind.
Malek, the resident pretty boy, is woefully overindulged by choreographer Andrew George (in “Beautiful Girls,” most noticeably) and Kathryn Evans (terrific earlier this season in “The Fix”) employs a panoply of accents as misguided as the decision to give her “I’m Still Here,” when the song’s logical interpreter sits idly by in French. “There’s a rather talented tool here,” says French of her own vocal talents that go unused. Well, maybe next year.