Most evenings of musical theater provide at least one hummable tune that you can’t shake.
“Side by Side by Sondheim,” the latest from Kansas City Repertory Theatre, has so many memorable songs you will leave the theater with your head feeling like a well-stocked jukebox.
This is all the more impressive when you consider that “Side by Side,” which first hit the stage in 1976, draws only from the earliest of Stephen Sondheim’s stage musicals, among them “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “Company,” “A Little Night Music” and “Follies.”
It doesn’t even cover later work like “Sweeney Todd” (arguably Sondheim’s masterpiece), “Into the Woods” or “Sunday in the Park with George.”
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Another nifty thing about this format: The pervasive cynicism that often makes a Sondheim musical tough going (admit it…you’ve experienced that second-act burnout) is lightened by the revue format, which delivers his mocking ruminations (often on the subject of marriage) in easily-digested bites.
Of course, songwriting skill means little without the voices to deliver it, and this production — helmed by Rep artistic director Eric Rosen — has vocal talent to waste.
The four singers — Jenny Ashman, Shanna Jones, Orville Mendoza and Oliver Thornton — each bring to the proceedings not only their own distinctive voices but also individual stage presences. The latter comes in handy inasmuch as these cast members have to do a lot more than just sing — they have to sell.
And, boy, do they.
Top comic honors go to Jones, a raucous ball of fire who comes off like the bawdy love child of Madeline Kahn and Melissa McCarthy. Exhibit One: “I Never Do Anything Twice,” written for the film “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” in which she plays an experienced bordello madame dealing with unusually demanding customers.
Ashman displays her operatic voice on several numbers, but then turns around and endearingly embodies a braying, off-key chorus girl in “Broadway Baby.”
Mendoza shifts effortlessly from a Cockney sailor’s love song in “Pretty Lady” to the gender-bending “Could I Leave You?”, a sarcasm-drenched tune originally written for a female character in “Follies.”
Thornton slays with perhaps the most genuinely emotional tune of the night, “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music.” Compare that to the delicious self-loathing he displays in “Buddy’s Blues”:
“You say that I’m terrific / but your taste was always rotten.”
The ensemble numbers — among them “Comedy Tonight” and “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” — benefit from terrific harmonies and clever staging by Chase Brock.
All this unfolds on Jack Magaw’s simple but elegant set evoking a New York cabaret: Twin prosceniums arch over the stage, a plush red curtain opens to reveal a scrim featuring Jeffrey Cady’s projections (everything from poster art from the Broadway shows to archival photos of a young Sondheim).
And let’s not overlook the immense contribution of Anthony T. Edwards and Daniel Doss, performing on twin grand pianos like a non-plussed Ferrante & Teicher.
The evening ends with a breakneck medley of 30 Sondheim tunes, only a few of which were performed earlier in their entirety. They’re all so good they could be the basis for yet another Sondheim revue.
“Side by Side by Sondheim” continues through Feb. 19 at Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St. See kcrep.org or call 816-235-2700.