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Sondheim revue provides exhilarating warmth in cold, trying times

Norm Lewis in “Simply Sondheim” at Signature Theatre. (Christopher Mueller/Signature Theatre)
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Signature Theatre is so Sondheim-proficient it can do his work with its doors closed.

The proof is in “Simply Sondheim,” an online revue of more than 30 songs from the musicals of Stephen Sondheim, reaching back to “Saturday Night” from the mid-1950s and extending all the way to “Road Show” in the mid-2000s.

That 50-year survey allows the company, via director-choreographer Matthew Gardiner and a powerhouse ensemble, 12 strong, to lay down on video some of Sondheim’s most astonishing tracks: Norm Lewis, belting “Being Alive”; Emily Skinner, nailing “The Ladies Who Lunch”; Donna Migliaccio, mastering “The Worst Pies in London”; and Conrad Ricamora, enriching “Finishing the Hat,” among others. (The first two are from 1970’s “Company”; the third from 1979’s “Sweeney Todd”; the last from 1984’s “Sunday in the Park With George.”)

With superb vocal arrangements by David Loud, the songs roll merrily along in the melodic assembly line of a Sondheim enthusiast’s dreams. The impetus for this production — enhanced by Jonathan Tunick’s sumptuous original orchestrations and 15 musicians under the baton of Jon Kalbfleisch — is not experimental, or even archival. As the show’s title suggests: It’s simply love. (The love starts to flow on Tuesday at and continues through March 26.)

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There’s no narration to knit the songs together, no host to set a tone. Performed on the stage in Arlington to a house shuttered to all but the singers, instrumentalists, technicians and crew, the numbers do all the work. And at a time when the rest of us are deprived of the joy of being alive in a room with them, it feels like God’s work.

Gardiner and company understand that this theatrically undernourished moment is one in which an audience wants to mainline old favorites. So what if every Sondheim anthology from here to Saskatchewan features “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” or “Getting Married Today”? “Simply Sondheim” offers both. They also both happen to be from “Company,” the remarkable show that for a kid from New Jersey, listening to show tunes on his record player, sealed a lifelong obsession with the now 90-year-old composer-lyricist.

These songs from musicals changed my life. Now they can sustain me.

The actors assembled for “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” — Tracy Lynn Olivera, Awa Sal Secka and Katie Mariko Murray — carve a piquant new niche in the pantheon of stylish trios for this comic Andrews Sisters pastiche. And Olivera ably scales “Getting Married Today,” that Olympian test of breath control, diction and memorization — a lyrics-overpacked embodiment of wedding day tremors.

The two acts include two inventive mini-song cycles: The first is built on the paradoxes of devotion and culminates in Secka’s dynamite rendition of “I Wish I Could Forget You” from 1994’s “Passion.” The second links a string of songs in Act 2 to the theme of bitter partings, and includes numbers cut from “Follies” (1971) that later made their way into the revue “Marry Me a Little” — “Who Could Be Blue?” and “Little White House.” A gorgeous mash-up comes later, of Skinner singing “Losing My Mind” from “Follies” and Solea Pfeiffer layering in “Not a Day Goes By” from “Merrily We Roll Along.”

Other memorable duets are forged in Olivera and Murray’s pairing in “Every Day a Little Death” from “A Little Night Music” (1973) and Ricamora and Christopher Mueller vibrantly combining for “Poems” from “Pacific Overtures” (1976). (And now, please sign me up for Ricamora — a standout in the 2015 Broadway revival of “The King and I” and off-Broadway’s “Here Lies Love” — to be cast in a revival of ­“Overtures.”)

The exceptional camerawork and editing here bring to mind the techniques employed in last summer’s film version of “Hamilton”: We’re transported to the artificial landscape of the stage, through a lens that moves insistently to the demands of a song, or movement. For “A Weekend in the Country” from “A Little Night Music” — one of the wittiest, most narratively kinetic first-act finales ever written — the camera is one with the storytelling, bobbing and weaving as the number passes from one performer to the next.

A seeming acknowledgment of this country’s current troubles launches the second act. Much of the ensemble comes together for “Something Just Broke,” a song Sondheim later added to his provocative (and sometimes undervalued) 1990 musical “Assassins.” A version of “Now You Know” from “Merrily” cleverly follows: “All right now you know: Life is crummy/ Well now you know, I mean big surprise/ People love you and tell you lies/ Bricks can tumble from clear blue skies . . . .”

I could go on. Bobby Smith, Nicholas McDonough and Paul Scanlan grandly round out the dozen Sondheim singers, and Gardiner, Signature’s associate artistic director, reasserts his command here of the Sondheim canon — the company’s originating raison d’etre. As the organization continues its search for a new artistic director, following the departure last year of founder Eric Schaeffer, “Simply Sondheim” suggests that his successor might be in plain sight.

Simply Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Lighting, Adam Honoré; sound, Ryan Hickey. 1 hour 45 minutes. $35 tickets available starting Tuesday at Through March 26.

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