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Diabolical Ditties

Sondheim's musical chops cut deep in Side by Side.

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The trouble with Broadway musicals is there's never enough cannibalism. Of course, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim did what he could to correct that error back in 1979, when his Sweeney Todd put into song the story of a sociopathic barber who snuffed his customers and passed the corpses to his wife, who turned them into the best meat pies in London: "Mercy, no sir, look closer/You'll notice it's the grocer." Now that's a homicidal urge you can really sink your teeth into.

Ever since he hit stardom with his lyrics for West Side Story in the 1950s, Sondheim has boldly and continually reimagined the stage musical -- often to the consternation and startled amazement of some patrons -- which is why the retrospective of his works in Side by Side by Sondheim is such a treat. Of course, the passing years have muted the controversy surrounding some of Sondheim's tunes, but that doesn't soften the hard edge of his wit and the devilish complexity of his compositions. As staged by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival on the grounds of Stan Hywet Hall, the real genius of Sondheim is apparent in happy profusion.

Starting with "Comedy Tonight" and working its way to a selection of solos from Follies, Side by Side mixes an armful of songs with some connective narration that lightly sketches Sondheim's rise from an acolyte of renowned lyricist Oscar Hammerstein to his current position as the maestro of American musicals. And for those who haven't followed his career closely, there are many surprising encounters. For instance, an apparently devoted husband sings "You Must Meet My Wife" to his rueful mistress (He: "She'd strike you as unenlightened." She: "No, I'd strike her first"). And the ultimate song of wedding-day insecurity, "I'm Not Getting Married," combines three voices in three different but complementary melodies that are as challenging for the performers as they are dazzling for the audience.

The four-person cast is well suited for the task at hand, with Jaimie Cordes (a separated-at-birth clone of Pierce Brosnan) applying his rich baritone to many numbers, including the tender "I Remember." Jan Guarino -- short, blond, and sassy -- is excellent on the novelty songs and brings irresistible charm to "I'm Just a Broadway Baby." One of Sondheim's loveliest works, "I Think About You," is touchingly delivered by Marya Spring, while Timothy Champion handles the narration and fill-in vocals.

Unfortunately, a fuzzy sound system on opening night blurred these lovely voices, especially when they sang together at full volume. Hopefully, this problem will be fixed, since it would be difficult to imagine a lovelier setting for this show: a multilevel, flower-bedecked outdoor stage, with a horizon sunset visible through an opening in the woods to the left of the stage.

Although Champion seems uncertain of his lines at times, the rest of the cast is thoroughly polished, and Nancy Cates's smooth direction punches up the humor without overdoing it. In short, if you're attracted to intelligent, refreshingly different musical fare, don't let this Side by Side slide by.

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