A funny thing happened on the way...

MUSICAL Side by Side by Sondheim Greenwich Theatre
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The Independent Culture
"Is it a play? Is it a show? Is it an excuse for royalty payments?" Compere Dawn French has a point. We live in the compilation era. The likes of Good Rockin' Tonite, Five Guys Named Moe, Only the Lonely and Smokey Joe's Cafe all attest to the wisdom of abandoning the search for new musicals when stringing hits together is a surer route to success. Side by Side by Sondheim dates from the good old days (1976 since you ask), so its creators Ned Sherrin and David Kernan cannot be accused of jumping on the Greatest Hits bandwagon. Despite London productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company and A Little Night Music, this was the show that really introduced the British public to Stephen Sondheim.

More worryingly, it also set the style for "sophisticated" cabaret shows from there to the end of the century: an MC, piano(s) and singers perched coyly on bar stools, preferably black leather and chrome. Unlike the uneven revival at the old Donmar Warehouse, the first thing you notice about Matthew Francis's crisp production is that he is having none of that. Rather than punching out the buoyant, winning opening number (from A Funny Thing... where it performed the same function) his singers lounge around Lez Brotherston's smart Manhattan apartment set, musing and playing with the lyric. It's a nice touch, typical of his desire to inject the show with zest.

On the face of it there's nothing new. Aside from odd snatches of material in the two-piano arrangements up to and including Assassins (1991), everything stops at Pacific Overtures (1976) from which we get the haunting sailors' trio "Pretty Lady". What is new is Francis's eye for detail and adroit casting. Letting talents like Liza Sadovy and Kathryn Evans loose with songs as strong as these proves once and for all that Sondheim's lyrical and musical demands require real voices. "Getting Married Today", the hilarious nightmare wedding song from Company, is the perfect illustration. Acting talent alone won't make the bride's breathless, helter-skelter neurotic patter work. Evans has the faultless diction and iron breath control to make the lyric, well, sing. Similarly, Sadovy's technical command above the stave means that instead of hearing the usual vague high warbling you get crystalline singing and all the jokes too.

"Something's Coming" from West Side Story replaces the duet "We're Gonna Be Alright" and shows off David Malek's vigour and rhythmic strength, but too often he misses irony and generalises emotions. In less distinguished company it would be less noticeable, but he should listen to Evans's feline toying with the slow burn of "I'm Still Here" or learn from Sadovy's magnificently restrained "Losing My Mind", a song nearly always ruined by overkill.

There are problems. Horribly over-energetic choreography does nothing but make the performers look uncomfortable and the strippers' trio "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" is dead in the water, but the performances put such things in the shade. Francis has raided his address book for celebrity MCs (next week it's Roy Hattersley, discuss) but tonight is your last chance to catch Dawn French in full flight. A friend observed, tartly, "it's Sondheim's best show". It isn't, but there are times when they make you believe that's true. Hurry on down.

Booking: 0181-858 7755. To 6 Sept