‘Side by Side by Sondheim’ at Vagabond Players

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Some of Broadway’s biggest hits have merged into one show and found their way to Baltimore, occupying our own South Broadway in Fells Point. Side by Side by Sondheim is a musical revue featuring the works of Stephen Sondheim from the first two decades of his career. Directed by Shannon Wollman, it opened at the Vagabond Players this past weekend.

Jennifer Viets, Steve Antonsen, Alyson Shirk, Gary Hiel. Photo by Tom Lauer.
Jennifer Viets, Steve Antonsen, Alyson Shirk, and Gary Hiel. Photo by Tom Lauer.

Side by Side by Sondheim is a show full of songs with only the barest bit of context to tie it all together. A combination of history lessons and of grouping songs together according to themes helps it all to make sense, but beyond that, the music is left to speak for itself. This allows the performers to really show off their skills, as they switch from funny to tragic  and back again within minutes. The genius of the show, though, is that it allows the songs to speak for themselves. You don’t need to know the plot of Company to appreciate the humor in “The Little Things We Do Together,” nor do you need to have seen Follies for “Losing My Mind” to be any more heartbreaking.  Sondheim is a master composer and lyricist, and all one needs to do to appreciate this is to sit down and really listen to his work. Side by Side by Sondheim gives the audience that chance.

Bringing these songs to life is a small and talented cast of five. Steve Antonsen, Gary Hiel, Alyson Shirk, and Jennifer Viets make up the mobile cast, with Music Director and pianist Douglas Lawler stationary at the piano. Being such a small theater, Vagabond isn’t equipped for large casts and dance numbers. But don’t think that the theater space or diminished cast size does anything to diminish the performance. If anything, it provides greater opportunity for laughs. Gary Hiel in particular makes the most of his gender bent roles, notably playing Amy in “Not Getting Married Today” and being one of the girls in the number “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” both from Company.

All of the cast is amazing. The acting is great and the singing is even better. The music is nearly nonstop, and with only four singers, there’s not much time to catch ones breath between numbers. But this cast has found a perfect balance of who can do what and for how long, and the performances stayed strong right to the very end.

Personal favorites include Steve Antonsen singing “Could I Leave You” from Follies and  Gary Hiel’s “I Remember,” and  Alyson Shirk and Jennifer Viets were simply beautiful singing together in “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” from West Side Story. Douglas Lawler is flawless on the piano and I loved his rendition of “Anyone Can Whistle.”

The costumes are simple, just nice black shirts and pants. But a lot can be and is done with the change of a jacket or the addition of a hat. The set is very simple, with just the piano and a few moveable boxes for stools. Sondheim is everywhere, though, with posters of his musicals on the walls and even his signature projected on the wall above the piano. Kudos to Lisa Wood, the lighting designer, and Sarah May, the booth tech, who stayed on top of all of it. Ernie Ritchey choreographed some great, simple dances, which harkened back to old Broadway.

Jennifer Viets, Steve Antonsen, Alyson Shirk, Gary Hiel. Photo by Tom Lauer.
Jennifer Viets, Steve Antonsen, Alyson Shirk, and Gary Hiel. Photo by Tom Lauer.

After nearly 100 years of continuous performances, Vagabond players is still putting on wonderful shows. Side by Side by Sondheim is a funny, moving, and informative salute to one of Broadways greatest talents, sure to leave you humming long after the curtain’s closed. And on the subject of their upcoming centennial celebration and curtains, Vagabond has begun fundraising to upgrade their facilities. The theater is housed in an old building, and like many old buildings in Baltimore, it needs some work. While you’re there, considering donating to their renovation fund, so they can keep putting on shows you’ll love for another century.

Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

Side by Side by Sondheim is playing through May 17, 2015 at the Vagabond Players – 806 South Broadway, in Baltimore, MD. To purchase tickets, please visit their website.

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