Late in the first act of "Side by Side by Sondheim," Lenora Nemetz holds the audience in her grasp, singing an obscure song that had a cameo in the movie "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution." Channeling a German chanteuse (ala Madeline Kahn in "Blazing Saddles"), her eyes alight on a gent and, with that telltale husky voice, she teases, "No matter how nice, I never do anything twice."
The song is about a lady of questionable repute, but it applies to the varied works of master songwriter Stephen Sondheim.
The CLO Cabaret revue of Sondheim's early songbook reminds us of the years before the demon barber "Sweeney Todd" and the devilish "Assassins," before collaborative triumphs with James Lapine on "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Into the Woods." By the mid-1970s, Mr. Sondheim was being celebrated with revues such as "Side by Side," conceived by Ned Sherrin and reinterpreted for the CLO by director/choreographer Richard Sabellico.
This "Side by Side" appreciates the writer's wicked wit as it applies to love and marriage -- not necessarily both at the same time -- with some zing provided by the cast and a mix of well-known and lesser-known works. Opening the revue with "Invocation" from the little-seen "The Frogs" is a hint that the audience is in for an education as much as an entertainment experience.
The opener sets an irreverent tone by asking the gods of theater to smile on the company and then offers some audience don'ts: don't cough, don't squeak, don't unwrap candy, don't brood, don't, um, pass gas ... If cell phones had been invented when it was written, it would be a perfect service message for theaters everywhere.
"Side by Side by Sondheim" arrived in the mid-1970s and drew its musical numbers from "West Side Story," "Gypsy," "Company," "Follies" and more obscure works, bridged by interludes from the maestro's life.
Broadway veteran and Pittsburgh treasure Ms. Nemetz has a keen sense of playfulness plus the chops that landed her a gig as Patti LuPone's standby for Mr. Sondheim's "Gypsy" in 2008. Her youthful counterpart, feisty Caroline Nicolian, has a lovely soprano that shines in a "West Side Story" duet in which she, as Maria, sings "I Have a Love," while Ms. Nemetz's Anita hits back with "A Boy Like That."
Pittsburgher Billy Hepfinger, a familiar and towering figure on local stages, makes his CLO Cabaret debut with a song in his heart and a sense of humor. Joining the ladies for "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" from "Gypsy," he dons lights over his clothes in some, uh, strategic places. He also does a fine job when the going gets insincere ("Could I Leave You?" from "Follies") and, in "Marry Me a Little" from "Company," when he sings as one of the dueling Bobbys, with Daniel Krell coming in for "Being Alive."
Mr. Krell, who has performed in 35 Pittsburgh CLO shows, also is a first-timer at the Cabaret at Theater Square. He has the tough assignment of being featured on works such as "With So Little to Be Sure Of" from "Anyone Can Whistle." Never heard of it? It played for nine performances on Broadway in 1964 -- the same year that Mr. Sondheim's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" closed after two years.
With Mr. Krell as Oscar Hammerstein and Mr. Hepfinger as Mr. Sondheim, we learn factoids during interludes between songs. Ms. Nemetz drops in a mention of her "Gypsy" experience, but it's on songs from other musicals, such as "Send in the Clowns" from "A Little Night Music" and "I'm Still Here" from "Follies" that she commands the spotlight.
Music director Brent Alexander is center stage throughout the performance, with his piano a focal point of Tony Ferrieri's multilevel art-deco set. The design is pretty on its own and enhanced by Andrew David Ostrowski's moody lighting.
The CLO show seemed long at two hours with a 15-minute intermission, but that may be a side effect of being inside on a sunny afternoon with the arts festival right outside the door. Still, it felt good to be spending time in the company of these performers and leaving a bit better informed about Stephen Sondheim's brilliant career.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.