Side by Side by Sondheim–a homecoming at New American Theater

Side by Side by Sondheim–a homecoming at New American Theater

By Edith McCauley

By Edith McCauley

Theater Critic

From the moment Tim and Jean Anderson played the opening bars of “Comedy Tonight” and Nancy Erickson-Dutmer, Rod MacDonald, Dorothy Paige-Turner and Stephen F. Vrtol III came on stage, we knew we were in for an evening of great music, high comedy and a reunion of some of the best-loved performers in our town. All four have been a part of New American Theater almost from its inception, and Turner and MacDonald starred in Side by Side in the late ’70s. Richard Raether’s decision to remount a musical that combines the music, lyrics and genius of Stephen Sondheim closes one of NAT’s most successful seasons.

Sondheim’s ability to tell an entire story in the lyric of one song is reflected in “I’m Still Here” from Follies. The tale of three former show girls reunited to save an old theater, the song elucidates three decades of American history. Turner’s rendition, exquisitely done, showcases Sondheim at his best. Her ability to translate the emotion and meaning of a woman’s reflection on her life is perfection. With a voice a bit huskier and more mature, the song seems to have been written just for her.

Erickson-Dutmer returns to our town from the North Woods and enters the stage with all the panache and comedic flair that has made her a favorite since her teenage years. Her duet with Turner, “Can That Boy Foxtrot,” a seldom-heard piece from Follies, gives them the opportunity to harmonize, clown and just have fun. “Losing My Mind” with its dissonance and tragic implications is a highlight, and Erickson-Dutmer, with a golden scarf and body language that enhances every phrase, interprets the lyrics and sings every note flawlessly.

What a joy to see Vrtol back on stage at NAT. Nearly everything he has done displays his talent for drama and comedy. Side by Side allows us to enjoy his absolutely great voice. “Being Alive,” with its intensity and pathos, comes near the end of the show, and Turner’s “I’m Still Here” is a fitting climax to an evening for us to remember.

Narrating the story and stitching it together, MacDonald’s power to take a show of sophisticated material and translate it with ease makes the piece new again. His nonchalance makes his friends feel completely at home. His magic is the key to our feeling that nothing could be better than a joyous reunion.

The staging and direction of Raether is done with a light touch. The realization that his talented cast with years of progressional experience know what they are doing is evident. It takes an intuitive director to understand that. Cyndi Conley, also a long-time associate of everyone involved, choreographs to each cast member’s best advantage. Her work with Vrtol and Erickson-Dutmer reveals a deep appreciation of their comedic genius, and nothing is overdone.

Musical Director Tim Anderson understands his singers and Sondheim’s music. The support he gives comes with years of working with vocalists. He knows every nuance of the lyric and plays to that. Jean Anderson is the second accompanist, and the two grand pianos at either side of the stage surround the singers with music. Technically, the show works well. One comment from a friend was that the speakers on one side of the stage were poorly positioned. That will be remedied.

My delight at seeing this production cannot be over-emphasized. Long-time friends with talent working together to entertain and share their happiness makes an evening that is unforgettable. You might surmise I like the show!!! It runs through July 1.

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