DISNEY HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: Two hours of hopping, skipping, bubblegum-pop-driven drivel.
They might as easily have titled it Half and Half by Sondheim. When the musical compendium SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM was devised in 1976, the grand pooh-bah of American musical theater had written words and music for the landmark Company and Follies as well as for A Little Night Music and Pacific Overtures and cleverly fit words to the melodies of titans Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers, and Jule Styne. But Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Assassins, Into the Woods, and Passion were but gleams in his ear. So Side by Side, which is being revived by New Repertory Theatre (at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through July 22), is sort of a male, musical equivalent of Lillian Hellman’s An Unfinished Woman. Still, if its Sondheim songbook is incomplete, the contents bode well for a second act in at least one American life. And at New Rep, under Rick Lombardo’s tongue-in-cheek direction, with elegant two-piano accompaniment by Joshua Finstein and musical director Todd C. Gordon, the familiar artful dissonance is being served on a whimsically decorated platter with equal parts brightness and rue.
Unlike the 1980 Marry Me a Little and the 1992 Putting It Together, this Sondheim revue does not arrange its material to imply a plot. Instead, it uses the somewhat clunky devise of a narrator (originally, co-conceiver Ned Sherrin) who supplies biographical snippets and Cliffs Notes. Here Lombardo and Emerson senior Jonathan Colby, who hosts the WERS FM radio program Standing Room Only: The Best of Broadway and Beyond, have collaborated to update and personalize Colby’s set-ups, throwing in references to Desperate Housewives and the Combat Zone. The interruptions remain tiresome — and can we possibly need a plot-summary introduction to “Send In the Clowns”? Some of Lombardo’s comic tweaks of the musical dynamics, in the form of stevedore-diva one-upmanship, are funnier.
Of course, it is not Wikipedia-esque entries on Sondheim on which this show rides. Its mount is the mostly terrific tunes, with their off-rhythms and intricate lyrics, in the service of which poor diction is treasonable. (No treason is committed here.) The menu includes a healthy representation of Company and Follies, as well as morsels from A Little Night Music and Anyone Can Whistle, and a few delightful curiosities, including “I Remember,” from the mid-’60s television musical Evening Primrose, and the Kurt Weill–infused “I Never Do Anything Twice,” from the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. The latter, every delicious double entendre of it, is delivered by Maryann Zschau in full cigar-brandishing, chair-straddling, innuendo-dripping mode. Which brings us to the triple whammy of the singing cast, with Leigh Barrett and Brendan McNab airing not only their formidable pipes but also their goofy sides. In “The Boy From . . . ” (a Mary Rodgers–penned “Girl from Ipanema” parody from the Off Broadway revue The Mad Show), McNab slinks seductively across the stage in shades and an open shirt, brandishing a reflector, as a nerdy Barrett, in Coke-bottle glasses and squinting into a Dummies guide, throws bossa-nova-like moves into her dazed pursuit of the clueless looker from “Tacarembo la Tumbe del Fuego Santa Malipas Zacatecas la Junta del Sol y Cruz.”
It comes as less of a surprise that each of the singers can put across the zephyr-like bitterness and poignance of some of the songs. For my money, there’s too much West Side Story here (Sondheim was only the lyricist, for goodness sake), and Barrett’s voice, though aptly operatic, is too heavy for Maria. But she applies her ravishingly round-toned soprano to thrilling effect on Follies’ “I’m Losing My Mind.” And McNab is capable of affecting, vibrato-throbbing delicacy, as “I Remember” and “Anyone Can Whistle” attest. Of course, the talented trio have excellent material; I predict big things for this Sondheim guy post-1976.
If you’re in high school, you’re probably way too old for DISNEY HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, the jumping, G-rated stage incarnation of the 2006 Disney Channel Original Movie that became a pre-teen phenomenon, its soundtrack the best-selling album of that year. Set in some palace of lower learning whose matriculants wear rhinestone school clothes, the film is a cross between Beverly Hills 90210 and the squeaky-clean Mickey Mouse Club. Its female lead, Vanessa Anne Hudgens, even has the exotic look of a skinny Annette Funicello — though counterpart Zac Efron looks more like Partridge Family–vintage David Cassidy than Frankie Avalon. At North Shore Music Theatre, where the live show is in its area professional premiere (through July 29), East High — as projected on large, looming laptop screens above the round gym of a stage — at least looks more like a public school than it does the Trump Towers. And the energetic cast of 38 (including 12 locals) is mostly garbed in jeans when not decked out in basketball or cheerleader gear. But the show remains the most curiously retro variation on Romeo and Juliet by way of Grease imaginable: two hours of hopping, skipping, bubblegum-pop-driven drivel next to which The Little Mermaid seems like West Side Story.