For the 1966 TV musical “Evening Primrose,” Stephen Sondheim wrote the line, “Soft as feathers, sharp as thumbtacks,” which provides an accurate definition of the tender shadings and cutting-edge elements in his music and lyrics. These qualities are perfectly nailed by director Nick DeGruccio in the Pasadena Playhouse production covering Sondheim’s work from the late ’50s to 1977. Featuring an ac-complished trio of singers plus narrator Orson Bean, the evening offers dozens of interpretations that make the complicated man behind the songs come alive.
The show takes a short while to achieve its tone. Davis Gaines’ maroon suit is enough to distract anyone from the score, and his overwrought delivery sells his vocal professionalism more than the story behind the material. But after an amusing mention of “stunning surprises, cunning disguises” from “Comedy Tonight,” in which Gaines puts on a mask and reminds the crowd about his triumph in “The Phantom of the Opera,” the performer demonstrates a sense of humor and sets aside image for deep immersion in the music.
Teri Ralston, a Sondheim veteran (“Moving On,” “Into the Woods,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Gypsy”) blends Elaine Stritch gutsiness with her own vulnerability. Her comic takes when Gaines sings “You Must Meet My Wife” — with the lyric about his child bride, “still a virgin” — are wittily exaggerated, and she beautifully conveys the self-deluding fantasy of past love with “In Buddy’s Eyes.”
Gaines joins Julie Dixon Jackson for “The Little Things,” aided by Lee Martino’s subtle and sprightly choreography. Narrator Bean mentions Sondheim’s “ambivalent” view of marriage, but that’s too weak a word for this savage examination of a relationship. The performers don’t shrink from its piercing frankness, and another closeup of emotional indecision, “Marry Me a Little,” spotlights Gaines in top form.
Some of the most entertaining segments center on songs that were cut from Sondheim productions. In 1974, “Follies” dropped “Can That Boy Fox Trot,” in Boston, a pertinent example of how even a fine number can be discarded if it doesn’t enhance the show as a whole.
Bean is a genial presence, donning a Hugh Hefner jacket and contributing insightful nuggets about the composer’s career. He tells of a confident 15-year-old Sondheim presenting his first work to Oscar Hammerstein and suffering the evaluation, “The worst thing I ever read … but I didn’t say it wasn’t talented.” Hammerstein proceeded to offer the teenager a master class in constructing a musical, lessons Sondheim never forgot.
Another notable anecdote describes a tech rehearsal during the 1972 London production of “Company” (which featured Ralston), an event so fraught with tension that Larry Kert cried, “Who do I have to screw to get out of this show?” Sondheim’s voice carried from the back of the theater: “The same person you screwed to get in.”
In addition to this behind-the-scenes information, Bean shows his old-pro charm singing “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” which he defines as “the quintessential dirty-old-man song.”
Director DeGruccio tastefully and carefully varies the moods and tempos, from Ralston’s pensive “Send in the Clowns” to Jackson’s breathless handling of the lyric-heavy “Another Hundred People.” As words plunge wildly ahead on this urban ode, Pierre Dupree’s high-level sound is particularly appreciated.
Two pianists, Dean Mora and Alby Potts, point up Sondheim’s classical progressions and dissonant harmonies with understated precision. They offer firm support for Ralston’s excellent take on “Broadway Baby,” a tough, realistic rendition that erases memories of Bernadette Peters’ version.
The second half of the show emphasizes Sondheim lyrics paired with the music of other composers. A “West Side Story” trilogy (music by Leonard Bernstein) is smoothly sung but feels too sophisticated, devoid of “street” feeling. More exciting are Ralston’s angry “Some People” and the ensemble reading of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” from “Gypsy” (music by Jule Styne). This interlude features Jackson in Wagnerian gold body armor with tassels attached to enormous breasts. Gaines is equally bizarre and funny playing a woman, in butterfly wings and wiggling antennae.
Driving the evening home are Jackson’s intense “Losing My Mind” and Ralston’s “I’m Still Here.” Both are so well done that they put pressure on Gaines to come through powerfully with the show’s closer, “Being Alive,” and he rises to the challenge, socking across Sondheim’s torn but hopeful point of view.