Once inside the theatre, I am greeted by a classic, minimalist set designed by Lisa Maule. With presiding grey/blue overtones and elegant lampshades dangling from the rig, the set is inviting but not distracting. The two grand pianos are rightfully given the focus and I feel like I am in a fancy sitting room, waiting to be entertained. The splendor continues with a strikingly synced overture from the on stage pianists, Colin Taylor and Michael Nicholas Williams, which is met with rapturous applause. However, the opening number and entrance of the three actors (Julie O’Brien, Matthew Pike, and Sarah Lineham) was somewhat disappointing. It didn’t match the confidence and energy established by the musical introduction and I struggled to catch most of the consonants. Unfortunately, these issues continue to plague the rest of the evening. The singing, whilst occasionally enchanting, was underwhelming overall. Lineham was barely audible in the higher notes and Pike’s voice seemed strained at points, most noticeably in solo moments.
The erratic sound equipment made the action harder to follow. Particularly throughout the first half, the singing was punctuated by loud and distracting cracking sounds from the speakers, especially when the performers were moving, which was often. I can appreciate that this was opening night and having dealt with dodgy mics myself, I completely empathise with the actors’ ‘the show must go on’ attitude. But I would expect more from a show with a $52 ticket. Halfway through an uncomfortable first half, Lineham finally admitted to the audience that her mic was the problem and must be commended for breaking the tension with some skillful improvisation.
The show moves through musical numbers effortlessly, with keen direction from Emma Kinane. Particularly strong moments include the final medley performed simply from bar stools, a well performed version of “Barcelona” from Company with conversational style singing, and O’Brien’s “I Never Do Anything Twice” in which Taylor and Nicholas Williams get a starring role. The use of space was fantastic; no song had the same staging and every inch of floor was used (including the gap under the piano!). This dynamic blocking coupled with smooth transitions and rapport building additions to the narration (including some Kiwi/cockney accent jokes), attests to Kinane’s expertise and clearly detailed knowledge of the musical theatre tradition. Leigh Evans also offers some charming choreography that the performers present with passion, although some clunky footwork suggests they may not be natural dancers.
While the ensemble worked tirelessly to bring us song after song, the stand out performer was definitely Julie O’Brien. In the fourth number, she accompanied Matthew Pike’s rendition of “You Must Meet my Wife” with some nuanced background facial expressions/reactions to Pike’s ode to his wife, which was delightful to watch. O’Brien kept us giggling away with quirky character work, playful interactions and moments of pure comedy gold. A highlight was her portrayal of a reluctant wife to be, who, with a hilariously shaking bouquet, was definitely ‘not getting married today’. However in “Send in the Clowns” she gave us heart and humility proving that she is not just “Comedy Tonight.” I found my eyes glued to her whenever she was on stage. It is also worth noting that this show is worth seeing for the pianists alone, who support the actors with graceful delicacy and good humour. They are certainly safe pairs of hands.
The second half, whilst less shaky and more sequined than the first, was overflowing with props, new costumes and a distracting set change that seemed unnecessary. All this, after a song about relying on a ‘gimmick’ was a little off putting and certainly gave the performers more to battle against. “Losing my Mind” should perhaps have been Lineham’s shining moment but unfortunately, as a subtler performer, she got a little lost in comparison to a dominating piece of confusing, hand-painted background set that had just been revealed with a curtain flourish. It was a shame since this was the strongest her voice had been all night. Pike’s performances were reliable and sharp but he also suffered from a lack of energy and seemed to pull away from the bigger moments. There was also three too many arse slaps for my liking, which felt crass and gratuitous and reinforced the gender stereotypes in Sondheim’s originals that this production could have done more to counter.
Side by Side by Sondheim left me lacking, despite the charm and efforts of the cast. As a big musical theatre fan, I had high expectations for this show to transport me back to high school productions past. While it certainly gave me a huge appreciation for Sondheim’s immense output and reminded me that his compositions are extremely technically demanding, I felt that perhaps the performers were not quite able to deliver the quality one has come to expect from these classic showtunes.
The show runs at Circa Theatre until 22nd March at 6.30pm (Tues-Thurs) and 8pm (Fri-Sat) with a 4pm matinee on Sundays. Find tickets here as well as information about some special events running alongside some of the performances.