June 7, 2022

It’s the little things you do together in Arts After Hours’ SIDE BY SIDE

by cns2020

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By Easton Mills

I don’t know how long it will be before live theatre stops feeling exciting again. After the too-long and intermittently ongoing COVID hiatus, it is a blessing that we are once again able to sit in rapt attention and see the pores of a performer’s face as they send emotion into the room on a wave of sound.

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Arts After Hours’ production of Side by Side – their first show in two years –  is a celebration of all things Sondheim and, by extension, all things theatre. While it’s important to be a lover of Sondheim to appreciate this show, this production is the warmth of a cozy living room full of friends singing songs you know and songs that you’ll want to know. 

It is by no means polished perfection. But in a show like this, you wouldn’t want it to be. The human element and comfortable flow was an invitation to creative intimacy that I wasn’t expecting. It’s also important to note that Arts After Hours added both a fourth cast member and a handful of songs to their production, a choice which enriched the experience overall. 

A musical revue in two acts, Side by Side is a Tony award winning musical originally produced in 1977 featuring music from Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, and other selections from Sondheim’s extensive repertoire. Side by Side’s Music and lyrics are by Sondheim with music also by Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers, and Jule Styne.

Arts After Hours’ staging of this show is simplistic and true to the spirit of the original production. Two keyboardists line the back wall of the black box, artfully playing Sondheim’s arrangements. The minimalist stage sports four stools, constantly moving, and a vintage 50s era microphone that the cast, whether scripted or not, often forget to move from the stage. The cast and musicians wear all black, cocktail attire allowing the audience to focus on the story and the music. 

Sitting at the cabaret style tables adjacent to the stage, I spent much of my time watching the facial expressions of the two keyboardists – Musical Director/first keyboardist Bethany Aiken (she/her) and second keyboardist Nathanael Wilkerson (they/them) – as they expertly flipped from page to page, energy playing off one another with flourish and spark.

This solid foundation ensured the strength of the show, because when emotion and interaction gripped the fourth wall breaking performers, an essential arc to the show, the music pulled their focus back to home and kept things flowing. 

Being a musical revue, Side by Side boasts no plot, but still retains a thread of continuity largely due to Sondheim’s dedication to themes of marriage (and suspicion thereof), a love of New York City, and parodies of the supposed “good old days.” 

While all four performers touted strong vocals, the two standout performances of the evening were Ryan B. Hebert (he/him) and Jo Ann Kaplan (she/her/hers). 

Hebert’s voice is notable to be sure, but it’s his personality that shines through with classic crooner style. Throughout the performance, his casual flirtation with members of the audience added a comedic element that he was able to call on again and again. His stage presence is disarming, allowing the audience to feel more comfortable in such an intimate theatrical setting. 

Kaplan too demonstrated her seasoned vocal prowess during the production, giving classic, tired songs like “Send in the Clowns” a much needed dust and polish. 

Having that said, my favorite vocal moment of the show was Brad Goren-Wilson’s rendition of “Marry Me a Little” from Company. Recently recovered from COVID and the only cast member wearing a mask for the duration of the show, Goren-Wilson shines through in the last 30 seconds of this number in a way that was both unrestricted and unhinged in the best of ways. 

This reviewer can only imagine how the performance would have been unmasked. I almost wish I could sneak back into the show to hear just that song again unimpeded by COVID restrictions. 

If you love Sondheim, go see the show. If you’re feeling hemmed in by your life, your marriage, your obligations, go see the show. If you’re free this Friday night, go see the show. At its core, the show is just fun, an invitation to relax and enjoy the gift that is live performance, because what a gift it is. 

Arts After Hours’ Side by Side runs until June 18th. Tickets On Sale Now At Artsafterhours.tix.com! Please note that Masks & Vaccination Cards Required For All Patrons.

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