Side By Side By Sondheim 25th Anniversary Gala

The Laine-Dankworth Centre, Wavenden. 15th October 2000

Review by Emma Shane © October 2000

What an evening! What a comedy tonight. Twenty five years after David Kernan, Millicent Martin and Julia McKenzie took to the Wavendon Stage in the first ever production of Side By Side By Sondheim, the stage of the newly rebuilt Wavenden Theatre, or to give it its proper title The Laine-Dankworth Centre, once again echoes to the sounds of David, Millie and Julia, once again Side by side by side by Sondheim. Only this time with many other fabulous guest singers, many of whom have also been involved with productions of various Sondheim shows, including Side By Side.

The evening opened in style, with the old stagers, Side By Sideís original Stars, David Kernan, Millicent Martin and Julia McKenzie singing Side By Side. On dashed three newcomers, the youngest of the Guest performers: Robert Irons, Tracy Wiles and Kirsty Hoiles, (in their guises of the younger editions of: David, Millie and Julia) to sing the opening number, Comedy Tonight. They sang it well, and set the scene for a very jolly evening.

††††††††††††††† Ned Sherrin now walked on and took his traditional place as Narrator. He described himself as "Superfluous ĖNew York Times", and he was not entirely wrong, for many of his jokes were old: Some quite possibly dated to the original Side By Side 25 years ago, at any rate David Kernan had certainly used a number of them in last yearís Chelmsford Revival of Side By Side. Others had been used by Sherrin himself, two weeks ago at On The Town. But, there were some new ones.

Now we come to the first collection of songs of the evening, on the subject of marriage. First up Wavenden supporter Barbara Ferris, and Louise Gold sang If Momma Were Married. Sharing the same forename, it was obviously thought that it would be a great joke to have Ms Gold sing Gypsyís part of the song, so that Ms Ferris could say "Sing out Louise!" However, as the evening was to prove, there was as usual, no need to tell Louise Gold, our own Mermanesque belter, to do that. Barbara Ferris had the most singing to do in this number and she made the most of it. One of the most memorable moments in the number was when Barbara, as June, sang the line "Iíd give all my toe-shoes to you", where-upon Louise pulled a truly dreadful face at the audience, making her pretty features quite ugly, as much as to say "Ugh, do we have to go through this" or some such. Indeed most of Louise Goldís performance of this number came more through her acting of it, with her face and hands then from her singing.

Next up was not You Must Meet Me Wife (which seems to have been cut, but Getting Married Today, sung by the New trio, Kirsty Hoiles, Robert Irons and Tracy Wiles. Tracy sang the Brideís part much better, I thought, than when she did in Next! Then she had done it hysterically, this time it was more controlled, possibly because she was better directed. She somehow managed to sing the song as fast as people expect, and yet sang the lyrics clearly.

Maurice Clarke was absent, so Robert Meadmore did a sweet I Remember. He sang it well, but the song probably means more if you know its context, which was not explained in this eveningís show.

Then we came to one of the first real high points of the show, Can That Boy Fox Trot, sung by two ladies who have worked together before in David Kernan shows (including the Chelmsford Side By Side),Liz Robertson and Louise Gold. Not all the singers were miked, and I donít think these two were. This would perhaps account for the fact that Liz got very over-shadowed by Louise. Often, when they work together , Liz Robertson can compete very well, but this time though she tried, Louise Gold was singing out at almost full stride, and consequently her powerful voice dominated. She also brought forth a few notes that almost deafened the audience, just when we werenít expecting them. Ė although when Louise Gold is in a show perhaps one should expect the unexpected. The only problem was, she set a standard for belting that was a tough act for several performers, later in the show, to try to follow. It was not just Ms Goldís singing that made her the more effective performer. Both women were wearing feather boas: Liz Robertson was just wearing hers, and shaking it a little. However, in Louise Goldís expert hands even a feather boa seemed to take on a life of its own. But then Louise Gold is well accustomed to using her clever hands for such purposes. I have never seen a master puppeteer perform a puppet live, but watching Ms Goldís performance with her feather boa in this number, might give one some idea of what that could be like.

The new Trio sang the introduction to Company very well Then Sally Ann Triplett sang Another Hundred People. She is a good singer, but I am not sure this song is really that well suited to her voice. She is too quiet, she had to be miked up a lot to be effective, and although she tried very hard, she is not a belter, at least not in the league we had witness earlier with Can That Boy Fox Trot. We then came to the old stagers showing us they are still young, as Julia McKenzie and David Kernan recreated the One Night Stand with an air hostess number, Barcelona. This number was a testimony to the singing and acting skills of David and Julia, as the managed to very convincingly act much younger than their ages. After this another treat as the wonderful Robert Meadmore sang Being Alive, with that lovely baritone of his. This man is so well suited to Musical Theatre.

††††††††††††††† The next number was a truly glorious follow on. In fact it was a real showstopper. Millicent Martin singing a song which she really made famous in Side By Side (although it had been featured, cut to shreds in the film 7 Percent Solution), I Never Do Anything Twice. Magnificent Millie climbed onto the grand piano, with someoneís assistance. Then she just sat there and sang. She started off in accent, but gradually lost the accent as she went through the song. Since she performed it so well, and in any case, she does not sing it in accent on the recording, nobody minded in the slightest. It was right fitting and proper that she should sing that number tonight. 1) Because she made it famous, 2) because she would sing it in such a way that we would all agree is "right" and 3) she just sang it so well. She even changed position on the piano, for the final verse she literally draped herself all over it Ė like a women half her age. Millie got herself off the piano to show stopping applause.

This number could not really be followed, so Lorna Dallas and Robert Meadmore had some difficulty in putting Too Many Mornings over, although they both sang it perfectly well and sweetly.

††††††††††††††† Then we came to Beautiful Girls. This was sung by Robert Meadmore, and was supposed to show off all the beautiful girls in show. Well it started quiet and slow, with no surprises, as The Girls began walking in sedately. Suddenly, the orderliness was shattered! as a wild Muppet-like creature of a woman, tore out of one of the entrances and literally ran up onto the stage, to take her place. Who on earth? Oh! One might have guessed....Louise Gold!

The procession continued, in spite of the interruption, and once the women were in place, the song continued, with the girls in a semi circle around the singer, they joined in and raised their arms, but somehow, vivacious Louise Gold could not help but move a little more than she was supposed to, she really is rather a scene stealer. It is also interesting to notice the way her hands, especially her left seem to be carefully positioned, as if poised for action. Her performance in this number was one you either loved or hated: The Purists must have hated it, but those of us who do like Ms Gold loved it.

††††††††††††††† That spectacle was difficult to follow. It was a little unfair on Tracy Wiles that she had to follow it, though someone must. She tried hard with Ah Paree. And I feel sure this song could suit her. But there seemed to be something missing. It was not, to my mind quite as effective as when Belinda Lang did it in Move On. Possibly this was simply Ms Wilesís a lack of experience, for there is no denying her talent. Perhaps what she needs is a job as a singer on a good TV comedy series, after all, Millicent Martin and Louise Gold both gained a lot of experience that way (on TW3 and The Muppet Show & Spitting Image respectively).

Now Robert Irons sang Buddies Blues backed up by Tracy Wiles and Kirsty Hoiles. This was great fun. It was not the way the number is usually done in Sode By Side, with one girl doing the actions, they shared them, like in Follies, But it was very enjoyable. Then Sally Ann Triplett sang Broadway Baby, this number suited her much better. it was lovely to hear her do it. She sang it so well, and it was a nice combination of singer and song.

The first act ended with the New trio (in the guises of Maxine Wiles, Patty Hoiles and Leverne Irons) singing You Could Drive A Person Crazy, and they sang it as well as they had been performing all act.

Act 2 started with another rouser from our talented New Trio, Everybody Says Donít.Now Director David Kernan took centre stage, as he just had to, to do Anyone Can Whistle. He sang it well, as always. This was followed by the excellent Angela Richards singing Send In The Clowns. This was pleasant enough, since she is a good singer. Unfortunately I am not keen on the song, and I must confess did not give it my full attention.

††††††††††††††† The next number was enough to wake anyone up, as it was the brilliant comic singers Louise Gold and Robert Meadmore, performing Weíre Gonna Be Alright, and holding wine glasses, from which they were sipping. Both were excellent. When it comes to the art of comic timing, Louise Gold is a real pro, for her: movements, facial expressions and singing were spot on. There was one moment, when she spluttered over her glass. The audience laughed. I was sitting at the side, and could not see the performers faces too clearly, so I wasnít quite sure whether the splutter was deliberate, or a mistake? I am told, by someone who could see better, that it was deliberate.

That jolly piece of fun would be a hard act to follow. So, quite wisely, what followed it was a good change of pace, namely A Boy Like That sung by Angela Richards and Kirsty Hoiles. One advantage of doing that number in a Gala like this, as opposed to usual productions of Side By Side By Sondheim, was the opportunity, for once, to have the song dueted by actresses with a distinct age gap. Too often it has to be sung by women who are close to each other in age. This time the age gap made a nice change, and worked very well, for both performers did it excellently, especially Angela Richards. It was almost like a mother-daughter rather than Ďbest friendsí relationship.

The next number was one of the very high spots of the evening, namely the magnificent Millicent Martin doing a song that had been in her repertoire for many years before she first did Side By Side and actually learnt who had written the song, The Boy From. Ms Martin did the number delightfully in a recognisably Essex accent. She really sang it very well.

Hits are hard to follow. It is wise to follow them with an ensemble number, on this occasion the New Trio singing Pretty Lady. They sang it pleasantly and enjoyable (although without the sort of G&S experience that some performers could have brought to the number. This did not matter greatly). However, I thought it was a shame that Ned Sherrinís introduction did not mention where these people were really from. The next performance was the only one in the show which I am afraid I really was not terribly keen on, it was Liaisons, sung by Fenella Fielding. I daresay it was enjoyable if you like Ms Fieldingís style, unfortunately I do not seem to.

Now we come to one of the great production numbers in the show, You Gotta Get A Gimmick, a number originally written for Ethel Merman. In this production we had Julia McKenzie, Millicent Martin and David Kernan making a brave attempt at recreating their hit version of it 25 years ago. Julia McKenzie headed the number, with a trumpet. She tried very hard, and I think for anyone who had seen the original the number probably came over better (because they had the memory of how she had done it 25 years ago), but for me the number was reminiscent of the moment in Blame It On My Youth when Jessica Martin made a brave attempt at singing a number from Blood Brothers in the style of Ethel Merman, full marks for trying, but...

††††††††††††††† In my opinion, numbers written for Ethel Merman, at least if she actually sang them, often tend to have Mermanís distinctive style stamped on them. This makes it much harder for other singers to make the number their own, especially if their style of doing it is not (and for most singers it isnít) Mermanís. Fortunately for Julia McKenzie (and anyone else trying to do this number, Ethel Merman never actually sang it (it was inserted too late into Gypsy), unfortunately, last year (in the Chelmsford revival of Side By Side) Louise Gold got hold of it. It is Louise Goldís gift that she can sing a number (written for the mighty Ethel Merman) in such a way as to put a Merman-style stamp on that number.

††††††††††††††† The numberís saving grace was the sparkling Millicent Martin, who, wearing lights, was indeed electrifying without even trying. At one point the house-lights were dimmed to allow her to "do it with a switch". David Kernan got a laugh for his "refined" grinding, which proved to be another of those moments in the show where the performance and the lyric were comically incongruent. The number ended with Julia trying to recapture it for herself, by adding an extra few notes on her trumpet while the three of them exited. This number, whatever else it did, was terrific fun, and really summed up this gala perfectly.

†††††††††††††††

††††††††††††††† It was a combination of factors that made the next number, Liz Robertsonís lovely Losing My Mind solo something to remember. Perhaps it was the fact that however good You Gotta Get A Gimmick had been, it had not (as it can do in some productions of Side By Side) actually stopped the show. Or perhaps it was because she is older and more accustomed to doing the number, than when she last did it. Whatever the reason, Liz Robertsonís performance of this number was far far more effective than when she did it last year (in the Chelmsford revival of Side By Side). This was her moment to shine. (in her previous number she had been rather overshadowed).

††††††††††††††† The next number was Could I Leave You, for once, unusually for Side By Side (though again as in Follies), it was sung by a woman, Lorna Dallas. She sang it well, and proved to handle the comedy of the number very well.

††††††††††††††† Then came one of the big Star turns of the evening, Cleo Laine, well Wavenden is her theatre, singing Iím Still Here. It is difficult for a show music fan to fully appreciate this song sung Jazz style. Personally I prefer this song done by an actress, and in a way I kind of wished that the magnificent Millie had done it Ė after all she did it here 25 years ago, and it must suit her so well. Besides which there is something about the "political" commentary in its lyrics, which to my mind, seem to be crying out for a Political Satirist Comedy Singer (such as Millicent "Side By Side" Martin, or, Louise "Spitting Image" Gold). However, while, Cleo Laineís style may not have been entirely to my taste, I could not help but appreciate her voice. She is an excellent singer, and deserves to be the star that she is. She sang the number very well in her style. And if you like numbers like that done in a Jazz style, then it was really great. Even I enjoyed it, although it is not a style I would normally choose to hear that song done in.

††††††††††††††† Finally the show came to an end with the entire company on stage to sing the title song Side By Side. This number was headed by our two trioís: The Old Stagers: David Kernan, Millicent Martin and Julia McKenzie, and the New trio: Robert Irons, Tracy Wiles and Kirsty Hoiles. Of course everyone else joined it. But the number really belonged to them. Millicent Martin took the Leading Ladyís command of the stage (even Louise Gold got no chance to scene steal this time). It was Millie who stood out in this number, both by throwing her flowers to the audience, and by tap-dancing (she still can), then she tried to get an emotional Julia McKenzie to join in with her tap-dancing (which wasnít quite such a great idea).

Thus an extraordinary evening came to an end. How delightful to see the Old Stagers reunited 25 years on. How good to see some talented up and coming newcomers ready to take their place in theatre. How interesting to have the great Cleo Laine taking part in a musical. And what a wonderful line up of other performers! So many of whom made their own unique contribution. But the true star of the show was Millicent Martin. The Gala really showed off how good Millicent Martinís role in the original production 25 years ago was. It was noticeable that some of the best performances in this gala came from the performers singing Millieís songs. The special star Cleo Laine, Of the old stagers, Millie herself, of the New trio, Tracy Wiles, of the other performers Louise Gold and possibly Angela Richards. Louise and Tracy, at least, have taken on "Millie"ís role in Side By Side (Louise did it in Chelmsford last year, and Tracy was doing it in this eveningís gala). So it is Millicent Martin and her Side By Side successors who really stood out in this Gala show.

 

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