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Theater review: ‘Side by Side by Sondheim’ at Signature Theatre

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On the theory that Washington can never get enough of Stephen Sondheim, Signature Theatre has programmed a revue of the composer’s songbook at the very same time that the Kennedy Center is rolling out its new revival of Sondheim’s “Follies.”

And you know what? That supposition is borne out in large measure by “Side by Side by Sondheim,” Signature’s restaging of an anthology show dreamed up in London in 1976. Although the explanatory narration between songs will feel a bit basic to Signature regulars (who’ve been seeing Sondheim shows for so long they can by now recite their own versions), there’s nothing pedestrian about the songs themselves — or about the company’s desire to take us through them once again.

Among them: “Another Hundred People” and “Being Alive” from “Company”; “I’m Still Here” and “Losing My Mind” from “Follies”; “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music”; and “A Boy Like That” from “West Side Story.” As Ethel Merman once sang, “Who could ask for anything more?”

Three singers and two pianists are our enjoyable guides for this tour of what amounts to roughly the first half of Sondheim’s career, the music and lyrics he wrote for assorted shows between 1957 and 1976. The actor-vocalists, Nancy Anderson, Sherri L. Edelen and Matthew Scott, make for a hard-working, eager-to-please trio. If you are sometimes overly aware of those efforts, that is because of a sunny artificiality in conception that they are forced to maintain by the evening’s director-choreographer, Matthew Gardiner.

That arch glaze of Steve-and-Eydie jocularity is a little passe — as are some of the standard-issue dance steps. (Glide this way across the stage, beaming; glide that way across the stage, beaming.) The format’s cliches mark a contrast to the virtuosity of Sondheim’s timelessly elegant lyrics, combinations of words so astonishingly assembled you sometimes feel as if language had been invented just so Sondheim could rhyme it.

Example from “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”: “When a person’s personality is personable / He shouldn’t oughta sit like a lump / It’s harder than a matador coercin’ a bull / To try to get you off of your rump / So single and attentive and attractive a man / Is everything a person could wish / But turning off a person is the act of a man / Who likes to pull the hooks out of fish.”

“You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is one of the songs wittily handled by the singers; normally a number for three frustrated women, the version here employs Scott as part of the complaining trio, and he amusingly establishes himself as one of the gals. Their liquid accompaniment is courtesy of pianists Jon Kalbfleisch and Gabriel Mangiante. (The professorial Kalbfleisch, a longtime conductor and music director at Signature, gets the rare evening to work his jaw as well as his hands; he even has the opportunity to sing a line — well, he hums, anyway — during “The Little Things You Do Together.”)

Sondheim songs famous and obscure are equitably distributed among Anderson, Edelen and Scott, who assume the parts in the show originated by Julia McKenzie, David Kernan and Millicent Martin. “Side by Side” is the Sondheim ur-revue, parent to the numerous cabaret, concert and songbook shows that have materialized since. Along with the compulsory songs such as “Broadway Baby” and some for which Sondheim wrote only the lyrics, such as “Gypsy’s” “If Momma Was Married,” “Side by Side” treated audiences to several numbers cut from musicals or written for other ventures.

These remain part of the Signature production, which only marginally diverges in content from the original. Chief among the evening’s pleasures is Anderson’s rendition of “The Boy From . . . ” — a parody of “The Girl From Ipanema” that the composer wrote for a comedy revue. Edelen is similarly comically effective with the double-entrendres of “I Never Do Anything Twice” from the film “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” and Scott offers a tender version of “Marry Me a Little,” a song eliminated from the original production of “Company.”

All three singers sound splendid. When it comes to the evening’s apparent thesis, that Sondheim’s lyrics are his most vital contribution, Gardiner’s production isn’t hypocritical: You can hear every word of every song. Edelen’s ruminative “I’m Still Here” is a standout; Scott does beautifully by “Something’s Coming”; and Anderson works it smashingly in “Broadway Baby.” And as for the notion that Sondheim is an actor’s composer: Overlays of deceit, desperation and regret all masterfully inform Anderson and Scott’s performance of the morning-after song “Barcelona.”

Some of the production’s embroidery looks worn out. In uninspired fashion, for instance, Misha Kachman’s set papers the walls of the Signature main stage with sheets of what are presumably Sondheim lyrics. Fortunately, though, on this agreeable evening, the words on those pages retain their magical powers.

Side by Side by Sondheim

music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and music by Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers and Jule Styne. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Music director, Jon Kalbfleisch; set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Matt Rowe. About 2 hours. Through June 12 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-7328.

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