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‘Side by Side by Sondheim’ at Vilar this weekend

Charlie Owen
Vail CO, Colorado
Theo Stroomer/Vail DailyAnders Willis, right, performs the show's opening number, "Instructions to the Audience", during rehearsal Thursday.
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Crowded around a piano with musical director Beth Nystrom at the keys, a cast of seven warms up their voices.

Afterwards, they take to the stage in Battle Mountain High School’s auditorium for what will be a three-hour rehearsal of “Side by Side by Sondheim,” the Vail Valley Theatre Company’s update (it was first performed in 1976) of the classic play ” a musical review of Broadway and film composer Stephen Sondheim’s work.

You may have heard of him, he wrote some of America’s most loved and revered shows like “Sweeney Todd,” “West Side Story,” “Gypsy” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

“Side by Side by Sondheim” will be performed by the Vail Valley Theatre Company Saturday and Sunday nights at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek.

“It’s a really fun and very dynamic (show) and a lot of switch(ing) up of characters and different roles and very different styles of music,” said Nicole Whitaker, one of three females in the cast. This is her first show with the company.

The cast and crew of the company spent the night tightening up last-minute glitches in production and issues with timing in the songs. The atmosphere was tense at first as the players wrestled with directions from choreographers and producers, but eventually, everyone found their groove.

The play opens with a number from “Sweeney Todd,” which wasn’t in the original play but was inserted in this production because of its recent surge in popularity on Broadway and in movie theaters. In fact, about half of the songs in their version of the play weren’t included in the original. That’s because he hadn’t written them yet, according to Beth Swearingen, the company’s director and choreographer.

“Side by Side by Sondheim” will be performed on the Vilar Center’s stage ” a much larger and ornate stage than the one they practiced on. Will the performers be ready when the curtain opens?

“Absolutely,” said Kaylee Brennand, the company’s stage manager. She has complete confidence that despite the short amount of rehearsal time the troupe had ” three weeks ” they will shine come showtime. This is what she calls “commando theater.”

“It’s amazing how good these people are … They’ve picked up the music, they’ve run with it. We’re fine-tuning at this point and I mean, it’s great because we get to pick the leaves off the trees instead of looking at the forest, rolling our eyes, going ‘how the hell are we going to pull this off?'” Brennand said.

Lance Schober agreed.

“I’m very confident. We’ve got a lot of just top-notch performers here and we’re so lucky to have such great talent focused in one area,” said Schober, one of the four male members of the cast who must constantly shuffle on and off stage and memorize the lyrics to over a dozen songs for the performance. “It’s going to be a stellar show.”

Just what is it about Sondheim’s music that is so challenging though? Ask anybody in this theater company and you’ll get a straight up love/hate answer.

“The music is very difficult … that’s why you love Sondheim, because his music is very difficult but it’s a love and a pleasure to sing,” Schober said. For him this has been a challenging production but one worth the time, he said.

The level of difficulty in Sondheim’s work comes not only from his complex musical arrangements, but the acting that must be done while singing his work, a double talent that Swearingen said isn’t always easy to come by.

Brennand isn’t so subtle.

“Sondheim is going to hell because of what he does to singers,” she said. “His melodies and harmonies are completely counterintuitive and really complex and that’s what makes them so wonderful when they’re done correctly, but that’s what makes it so hard to learn them.”

Even so, this theater company has taken on the challenge of Sondheim’s work. And for what? Obviously the fat paycheck?

Nope. This is community theater, not Broadway.

“These guys all have jobs. And you know, these people are performing out of love for performing and that’s it, that’s all they get is a chance to be onstage,” Brennand said.

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 970-748-2939 or cowen@vaildaily.com.


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