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It's true: Good and even great things do come in small packages. A bravura performance of Side by Side by Sondheim at Toronto's intimate 175-seat Poor Alex Theatre is the joyful proof.

A collection of both famous and obscure songs with music and lyrics by Broadway icon Stephen Sondheim, Side by Side was commissioned in 1975 by singer Cleo Laine and husband John Dankworth as a fundraiser for their theater in England. Although the master's later work is not included here -- the show stops before Sweeney Todd -- this is Sondheim at his most simple and subtle. Yet, in their way, all the tunes are showstoppers -- that's the point of the show. Side by Side became very popular with regional companies and was largely responsible for the spread of Sondheim's popularity beyond New York and London theater circles.

Actors David Nevin, Jessica Sherman, and Tanya Turner sing a variety of songs with consummate ease, effortlessly concealing the hard work that surely went into mastering the difficult intervals of the melodies and the split-second timing of the lyrics. As narrator Michael Rubinoff points out in his opening monologue, this is a show more than a play; for that reason, the small cast might have been better served by a "three stools and a spotlight" cabaret set and more basic staging, although a good deal of the slapstick choreography and mugging here is downright hilarious. At any rate, it's difficult to argue with an audience that claps, cheers, and stomps during several songs and pays the ultimate compliment -- utter silence -- when such poignant classics as "Send in The Clowns" are sung.

Sure, there were minor glitches at the perfomance I attended: set pieces getting in the way of actors, lighting technicians sometimes struggling to keep up with the high-speed hijinks, and sporadically intrusive blocking. Rubinoff sometimes speaks too quickly in an effort to maintain pace, resulting in a few slips. Also: In the first act, we get used to having all three performers on stage simultaneously, so why the change in the second act to a series of entrances and exits? But these are mere technicalities. Sondheim is a renowned addict of that potent intoxicant, the English language ("Who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights are low," "I'll get in the habit, but not in the habit") and a genius when it comes to writing music, so every cast member needs to be razor sharp.

That they are in this production. The opening number, "Comedy Tonight" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was a trifle shaky when I attended, but every other number killed. Each of the singers is a delight -- David Nevin has a voice that fills the house and rattles the rafters, and Tanya Turner owns the stage with songs like Gypsy's "You Gotta Have a Gimmick."

Stephen Sondheim
But it's Jessica Sherman who's the runaway hit. She triumphs first with "Getting Married Today" from Company, flawlessly delivering the song's high-speed patter. She breaks your heart with "Send in the Clowns," then knocks you dead with the hilariously funny "The Boy From...Tacarimba la Tumba del Fuego Santa Maliga Sacategas lo Onto del Sol y Cruz." (Go ahead: Try to say it, let alone sing it!) Sherman has a perfectly Sondheimian voice and manner, plus she's sexy as hell. She graduated just last year from the music program of the University of Western Ontario, and there's no stopping her now.

All of the voices blend sublimely in the ensemble numbers; hats off to musical director Callum Morris for his efforts. The hero of the show is lone pianist Mark Selby, whose absolute mastery of Sondheim's infinitely complex music is nothing short of brilliant. Side by Side by Sondheim was written for two pianos and is a tough hill to climb at that, but to play the entire thing solo is sheer wizardry. (It was scarcely a surprise that the profoundly appreciative audience roared during Selby's curtain call.)

This Side by Side by Sondheim opened on May 7 and is set to close on May 17. It's a criminally short run for a show so long on laughs, tears, cheers, and virtuosity. If there's a god in theater heaven, this surefire hit will be extended. On the off chance that it isn't, get yourself to The Poor Alex immediately. You'll hate yourself if you don't.

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