Every once in a while, it’s good to forget about the impossible, soul-crushing beauty of Stephen Sondheim’s music, if only so you can rediscover it in productions like MusicalFare Theater’s fine version of “Side by Side by Sondheim.”
The alternately cheeky and touching revue, directed by Chris Kelly and featuring a supremely likable cast, serves both as a crash course in the composer’s early oeuvre for neophytes and a warm nostalgia bath for Sondheim super-fans.
Not that forgetting about Sondheim’s unrivaled musical and lyrical genius has been easy lately. Second Generation Theatre just wrapped up its acclaimed run of “Assassins,” Sondheim’s unorthodox musical about the murderers of American presidents, and HBO’s excellent documentary “Six by Sondheim” remains fresh in many musical theater fans’ memories.
Even so, now seems like the perfect time to delve once more into the great catalog of smart and searing showtunes, and Kelly’s production, aided by Bobby Cooke’s often wacky choreography, draws out much of its humor and haunting pathos. In addition to Sondheim’s compositions, the show also features music by Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers and Jule Styne, for which Sondheim wrote only the lyrics.
Part of the appeal of the show, and this production in particular, is its small and tight-knit cast. Kelly’s production features familiar Musicalfare faces Kelli Bocock-Natale, John Kaczorowski, Jenn Stafford and Cooke, who seemed on opening night like a group of old friends who just happened to have stumbled upon a stage.
Kelly and his cast set the humorous tone of the show right off the bat with a number from “Gypsy,” “If Momma Was Married,” featuring Stafford and Bocock-Natale doing a kind of rigid pantomime of the famous number. Other highlights of the first act include a tongue-very-much-in-cheek version of “Can That Boy Fox Trot,” a number that was cut from “Follies,” and Kaczorowski and Stafford’s fine performance of “Buddy’s Blues,” accented by Cooke’s zany choreography.
Kelly’s deft touch as a director is most evident in an astoundingly moving number in the second act, in which Bocock-Natale and Stafford perform “A Boy Like That” from “West Side Story.” It’s a dead serious song, an emotional high point of the show, but here it begins as kind of a joke. As the women sing the song, Kaczorowski and Cooke act it out and lip-sync it, the way countless musical theater fans have done in the privacy of their own bedrooms. But as the song progresses from Anita’s staccato pleas to Maria’s soaring declaration of love for Tony, the boys give up their act. They simply sit down, hold hands and listen to the song as tears well in their eyes.
By the time the girls sing Sondheim’s lyric in unison “when love comes, so strong, there is no right or wrong,” the audience is right there with them. However contrived it may sound in print or seem to some in the cheeky context of the show, it was a deeply moving theatrical experience and a directorial risk well worth taking.
Sondheim’s music is infamously demanding on the vocal chords, and this cast is not always up to the challenge. But it’s to Kelly and the actors’ credit that they are able to transcend their vocal limitations and in some cases even use those limitations to help the spirit and personality of the music shine through. Key in this department is the dynamically sensitive piano work of Randall Kramer and Theresa Quinn, who know when to amp up the volume (around the difficult high notes of Bocock-Natale’s excellent rendition of “I’m Still Here,” for instance) and when to lay off.
For Sondheim acolytes and casual musical theater fans alike, this moving and frequently hilarious take on “Side by Side by Sondheim” is perfect summer fare.
3.5 stars (Out of four)
What: “Side by Side by Sondheim”
When: Through Aug. 9
Where: MusicalFare Theatre, 2480 Main St., Amherst
Info: 839-8540, www.musicalfare.com