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NRACT’s SIDE BY SIDE SONDHEIM Pays Homage to a Musical Genius

A memorial wall flanks the stage. Paper lanterns festoon overhead. A folkie album of Sondheim show tunes melds with the quietude as if to summon the spirit of the virtuoso himself. Indeed, the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre production of Side by Side Sondheim feels more like a celebration of life than a show. And why wouldn’t it?

When the musical premiered on Broadway in 1977, Sondheim was in his prime, having already written the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy, and the words and music for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music. Arguably, although he had yet to compose some of his more popular works like Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods, he had already made an indelible mark on American musical theater.

Still, contemporary audiences may be unfamiliar with songs like Ah, Paree, I Remember, or Can That Boy Foxtrot. Even Sondheim aficionados may glean something new from hearing these songs out of context. Not to mention, canonizing Sondheim’s early work postmortem feels even more panegyrical, which may be one of the reasons why Director Brian Westbrook has cradled this baby with such loving-kindness.

Westbrook treats each song as its own standalone hero rather than a missing piece of something greater, which allows for introspection. He, along with Music Director Mark Hopper, take measured musical risks that for the most part work but showcase the comedic numbers like You Gotta Get a Gimmick, better than the dramatic ones.  

That said, the powerhouse vocals, breathtaking harmonies, and overall showmanship of an impassioned ensemble overshadow any missteps. Sondheim devotees will appreciate the way in which the cast connect with the material and cut to the spiritual and emotional core of each song. Nonbelievers will appreciate the fact that this is one hell of a show. Either way, Side By Side Sondheim is an opportunity to reexamine the way in which the composer-lyricist’s music captured the pathos of the human condition for over a half-century and eulogize pure genius.

Side by Side Sondheim runs through March 27 at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre. For more information visit http://www.nract.org/.

To learn more about the show, listen to Lauren Van Hemert’s interview with Brian Westbrook.

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