Saturday, September 22, 2012

Canberra Theatre: Side By Side By Sondheim

Where are the clowns? Send in the clowns... Don't worry - they're on the sound desk.

Before I go on, I should say that none of my quibbles should get in the way of you going to see and hear three stellar artists performing songs by one of the greatest lyricist-composers ever - especially when you may still be able to get half-price tickets here.

Rachael Beck was as charming as her soprano was lovely and agile; Michael Falzon's cheeky game-show-host grin and delicious baritone were thoroughly endearing, but the evening belonged to Geraldine Turner; heartbreaking and hilarious in turn, from Sondheim's best-known ballads to his most obscure cabaret numbers.

The arrangements, for piano and an electric keyboard, were exactly right, and MD/pianist Craig Renshaw and the keyboard (not named in the programme) deserved better than Jessica Rowe's perfunctory introduction in the second act.

I do have quibbles. Though apparently this show has already had a night in each of Dubbo and Orange (not to mention a larger scale production at Sydney's Royal Theatre in April), the performers seemed under-rehearsed. Both Falzon and Turner - a Sondheim expert- forgot lines, and Rowe seemed quite unfamiliar with her script, even as she read it from a large book (which raised a separate question of why she could not have used that to prompt from instead of the performers having to walk back to the MD on piano for the line).

The script was also just dull, even without Rowe's hesitation. She did not seem at all comfortable, frequently referring to reading the news and naming her husband as if she needed to make sure we knew who she was, and then making a misplaced joke about getting us home in time for the football (Hello? Sondheim fans?)

I also think this was the worst sound I've ever heard in a professional production. Mics dropped out, had to be handed around, interfered with what mild choreography there was, were far too loud and bright (remedied somewhat in the second Act). Worst of all, mics were left on backstage, with snatches of conversation coming through over - of all things - an otherwise spellbinding rendition of Send In the Clowns. Though the basilisk glare Ms Turner directed to the back of the theatre was a treat to behold.

Lighting choices were also odd, and the book containing the boring script had a gilt edge which caught the light repeatedly and was distracting (on occasion, blinding). These are stupid and basic production errors which should not have occurred in a professional show.

I was also surprised to see a credit for "set and costume design" on the programme, as there was no set, and the performers were all dressed in plain black evening clothes. Surrounded by black curtains and in front of a black grand piano, it looked disappointingly drab.

I stil say: if you like Sondheim, do go to this, because the songs and performances more than make up for the very poor production values - most of which really ought to be fixed by tonight's performance. Just also be aware that this show was put together in 1976, and for whatever reason has not been updated - so there's 36 years' worth of material missing.  But there are also some very rarely heard numbers that are worth the price of admission alone - especially if you score the discount.

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