This superb, song-packed revue of the early works of Stephen Sondheim created in the mid-1970s in Britain and lovingly revived by the Theo Ubique Theater Company reveals that while his lyrics clearly extend the legacy of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, there has never been a single, discernable Sondheim compositional style. Indeed, as you listen to nearly half the score to both “Follies” and “Company” interspersed with various Sondheim early hits and rarities, you begin to realize what a jarring transition it is to hear songs that contain Sondheim lyrics to the music of other, more melodically gifted composers such as Jule Styne (“Gypsy”), Leonard Bernstein (“West Side Story”) and Richard Rodgers (“Do I Hear a Waltz?”) against the songs from shows in which Sondheim wrote both the lyrics and the music (the music is undeniably subservient to the lyrics). But Sondheimaphiles have always valued witty words over mediocre music, and there are plenty of both in this remarkably entertaining showcase, in which five spirited performers, an offstage narrator and singing pianist perform these songs as if their lives depend on it. The cast captures the “devil may care” sophisticated subtlety and cutting-edge irony of even the most familiar Sondheim numbers and the punchy counterpoint of the ensemble numbers—no small feat, as countless bad Sondheim performances frequently demonstrate. For those who savor Sondheim, this revue is the best area production since Ravinia’s “Sondheim at 75” series. For those seeking to understand what all of the fuss is about, this is the perfect primer. (Dennis Polkow)
Theater on the Lake, 2400 N. Lake Shore, (312)742-7994. Wed 7:30pm. $17.50. Through July 29.