If you’re in the market for dazzling, you might want to save your pennies for the all-star Follies that’s in previews at the Kennedy Center. That $7 million undertaking will presumably offer a little more in the way of spectacle than the Signature Theatre has been able to muster in its pleasant run through Side by Side by Sondheim, which pulls together a collection of the composer’s early work.
Making a virtue of necessity—-Passion, Into the Woods, and Sunday in the Park with George hadn’t been written when Hal Prince pulled this 1977 revue together—-the cast jokes that surveying the whole Sondheim canon would require an evening “as long as a performance of Giant,” the lumpen epic that left audiences cold at Signature a couple of seasons back; elsewhere, they bemoan a format that deploys a lineup “one-tenth the size of the cast of Sunset Boulevard” to handle the revue’s gratifyingly diverse catalog of 30 songs. If the patter seems a little strained, you’ve gotta at least give a theater credit for owning its choices.
Those songs range in style from the Andrews Sisters pastiche of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” to the soaring lyricism of West Side Story‘s “I Have a Love” (for which Sondheim contributed just the lyrics). They include the mildly naughty comedy of “The Boy From …,” a Mary Rodgers parody of “The Girl from Ipanema” to which Sondheim set words that tell the story of a clueless girl with a passion for an oblivious fashion plate. (“Whyyyyyyy are his trousers vermilion?/Whyyyyyyyy do his friends call him Lillian?”) And even considering the fact that they’re drawn only from the first decades of a career that’s run 50 years plus, they represent a trove of superb musical-theater writing—-from the razzle dazzle of “Comedy Tonight” to the brittle cynicism of “The Little Things You Do Together” to the neurotic acrobatics of “Getting Married Today.”
The willowy Nancy Anderson makes intricately articulated comedy out of that last number, a standout in an evening of songs that are often over-delivered, as if to hold the attention of a middle-school audience, or that are simply ill-suited to the voices available. Too much of “The Little Things” sits right on the break between Sherri Edelen‘s upper and lower registers, for instance, and Matthew Scott‘s pretty light baritenor isn’t the instrument for “Beautiful Girls” or “Marry Me A Little” or “Being Alive,” though he does very nicely indeed by the relative rarity “I Remember,” and blends beautifully with the others on “Pretty Lady.”
That last number, from the magnificent oddity Pacific Overtures, is a reminder that what I’m picking nits about is an excess of riches: Thirty songs from musical theater’s modern master, drawn largely from a set of shows that rank among the 20th century’s high-water marks, performed without too much in the way of amplification, by people who do seem to love them. If that’s your sort of thing, maybe Signature is where you’ll want to be this spring after all.
The revue runs to June 12 at Signature Theatre. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, eith music by Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers, and Jule Styne; directed by Matthew Gardiner.