Stephen Sondheim — writer of unhummable melodies and cynical lyrics? Or unerring saint of musical theater?
In the mid-1970s, opinion often gravitated toward the former. Then “Side by Side by Sondheim,” a revue that collected many of his cleverest songs, burst from England to Broadway. His fan base grew.
In a pleasant if less than scintillating revival at the Odyssey Theatre in West L.A., the show feels like a trip into the past.
That’s partly because the songs progress only to “Pacific Overtures,” the musical then-current when the revue was created in 1975. The show cherry-picks from “Company” and, especially, “Follies,” as well as such then-lesser-known works as the curious ABC television movie “Evening Primrose” and the short-lived “Anyone Can Whistle,” but we’re left without anything from such later masterworks as “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park With George” or “Into the Woods.”
The retro feel is also due to the sheer simplicity of this presentation. The performers are not miked, and they sing the old-fashioned, pre-“American Idol” way: with a bit of vibrato shimmering through and without melismas injected willy-nilly into every other phrase. The costumes, set — and virtually everything else about the presentation — are spare.
The director is Dan Fishbach, who staged “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” last year at the Odyssey. His performers, per the show’s format, are two women and a man, with a male narrator who delivers a bit of Sondheim’s life story and puts the songs in context.
The singers have pleasant, artful voices. No one turns on the pipes in a way to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, but Fishbach and his performers are attuned to what’s most essential in Sondheim’s songs: emotion, intent and psychological landscape. These are moments of introspection on which we find ourselves eavesdropping.
Particularly effective is a pairing of “Another Hundred People” and “Marry Me a Little,” both from “Company.” The former evokes the tumult of crazy-crowded New York City. Sarah Busic delivers it with a sense of hopefulness, seeing not an intimidating press of people, but boundless possibilities for connection. “Marry Me a Little” spells out a wish for love that is comfortable, not confining. Chris Kerrigan sings it with a deepening desire to find someone out there who shares his way of thinking.
Those who find Sondheim cynical are often thinking of songs such as these, but in its best moments, the Odyssey production reveals innate optimism.
Sondheim’s ample sense of humor emerges in such songs as “The Boy From,” a “Girl From Ipanema”-type tune written for an off-Broadway revue (Sondheim’s lyrics, Mary Rodgers’ melody). With each verse, Rachel McLaughlan sinks deeper into dejection as the character’s dreams of romance are ever more thoroughly deflated.
The singers are accompanied by cascading, swirling flows of notes emerging from electric keyboards manned by Richard Berent, the music director, and Cheryl Gaul. Mark D. Kaufmann narrates in a rich, engaging voice, sounding like your favorite college professor. He and Fishbach updated and localized portions of the patter.
The production — delivering 27 songs, with more packed into a medley — occasionally lets Sondheim down, especially when it resorts to silliness in a halfhearted attempt at the burlesque routines in “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” from “Gypsy” (lyrics by Sondheim, music by Jule Styne). The overly frenetic choreography by Imani G. Alexander isn’t always in character with the songs, and the designs are so minimal and low-tech that we almost feel we’ve been dropped into a rehearsal room.
Still, we see what makes Sondheim Sondheim: witty wordplay; brilliant rhymes; complex, crystalline melodies; and piercing insight into the human condition.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Side by Side by Sondheim’
Where: Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with scattered 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; ends Sept. 16
Info: (310) 477-2055, www.OdysseyTheatre.com
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes